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How to address our South China Sea territorial and maritime-area disputes

First of 3 parts

HOW to deal with our territorial and maritime-claim disputes, especially with China, in the South China Sea, is one of the most — I personally think the most — important issue the next president will have to deal with. Unlike other issues about which the candidates can just mouth motherhood statements, a candidate’s stand on this issue cannot be vague.

Following is an excerpt, in three parts, from my recently released book Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception*, in which I outline what I think should be the three-pronged, realistic strategy for the country to address this issue.

In the third part of this series, I will present each of the presidential candidates’ stand, and critique them, in relation to the three-pronged recommendation I explained in the book, excerpts of which follows.

Book excerpt:

The stark reality is that it has become moot and academic today to debate on which country has the legitimate sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

The arbitration case was a shrewd legal maneuver that the Aquino 3rd regime foolishly thought could pressure China to withdraw from the Reed Bank, where an oligarchic trio — the conglomerates of Antoni Salim, Enrique Razon, and Roberto Ongpin — wanted to extract gas from but was blocked by China.

A victory the past regime claimed, but only in a legalistic way: It was all really smoke and mirrors, as Duterte put it, a mere “piece of paper” without any real impact on the resolution of the SCS disputes. Except for the US and its usual Yellow followers, most of the world have ignored it. There is no world government that can force the claimants to agree to submit the case to the International Court of Justice to rule on the disputes.

As a US Navy think-tank concluded after a lengthy study of the disputes: “The reality on the ground is that China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines all permanently occupy features in the Spratly group; some have done so for over 50 years.” These countries may well claim that the length of such occupation strengthens their sovereignty claims, as effective occupation (effectivités) is viewed in international law as one means of acquiring sovereignty over a particular territory.

The Philippines needs to face reality squarely, and undertake three essential moves.

First, it has to tighten its hold on the islands and reefs it already occupies by developing and fortifying them. This is what the other claimants have been doing for years, but which the administrations after Marcos failed to do.

Second is to pursue joint development with the claimants, which China decades back had declared is in fact its proposal.

Third is to “deprogram” its citizens on the colossal deception foisted on them by the Aquino 3rd regime and its Yellow forces.

First: Develop what the Philippines occupies at present.

It borders on the ridiculous that while the Philippines is the country that is noisiest in asserting its claims in the SCS, quarreled with China over this, and spent P1 billion to undertake a useless arbitration suit against the superpower on the issue, it has not done what the other claimants did to protect its claims: fortify the islands and reefs it occupies.

This in fact is the most basic thing to do in territorial disputes, called the “sunk costs strategy.” This means, crudely, that a nation will succeed in convincing a rival claimant not to invade it f it invests heavily in the territory it occupies.

This is what the five claimants in the Spratlys have been doing since the 1980s.

In reaction to the Philippines’ arbitration suit that threatened a ruling for it to vacate the reefs it occupies in the Spratlys, China spent $150 billion for an unprecedented reclamation and development work that transformed the mostly submerged reefs it has occupied since 1988 into artificial islands. From having practically zero land area in the Spratlys, China now has 1,300 hectares in islands that have the most advanced facilities in the area.


Similarly, after the arbitration case was filed, Taiwan authorities spent $100 million to upgrade its airport built in 2007 and to build other facilities in Taiping Island, the biggest landform in the Spratlys, which quite ironically the arbitral panel ruled as merely a “rock” not entitled to an exclusive economic zone. Taiping is the only island in the Spratlys to be visited by two of its heads of state (Ma Ying-jeou in 2016 and Chen Shui-bian in 2008), a powerful message of Taiwan’s assertion of its sovereignty over it.

Vietnam was actually on the heels of China’s artificial-island building blitz, adding 50 hectares through reclamation. By 2021, it had built on the 30 features it occupies in the Spratlys one airport, 13 artificial islands, 38 helipads, 49 reef forts, 24 ‘pillbox’ concrete structures, and four radar stations. It even invented a new form of outposts: the so-called “DK1” (in Vietnamese meaning “scientific-technological economic service stations”) platforms that are patterned after offshore oil rigs. Vietnam has at least 14 of these on its submerged reefs.

Much earlier in 2000, Vietnam built an airstrip on its biggest holding in the Spratly archipelago, Spratly Island (also known as Storm Island). It doubled its size in 2016 so it could be used by its largest warplanes.

A nation ravaged by war that ended only in 1975, Vietnam managed to spend billions of dollars over the years to build up its facilities and reclaim land on most of its 29 islands and reefs.

Malaysia, which occupied Swallow Reef in 1983, developed it not just as a fortified outpost. It built Layang-Layang Island Resort complete with air-conditioned rooms and other resort amenities, with its website billing it as a scuba-diving resort. It now has an airport, fishing port, air traffic and radar stations, and other buildings, including those for its permanent contingent of soldiers.

In contrast

In sharp contrast to the other five claimants in the SCS, the Philippines has done very little to develop the islands and reefs that it occupies. Yet it gets the biggest coverage from international media due to Aquino 3rd’s very vocal quarrelsome stance against China and the arbitration suit he filed that ultimately proved useless to the Philippines.

While the Yellow bloc continues to demonize Ferdinand Marcos, he was the only president to have added something substantial to the natural features of Pag-Asa, the biggest island the Philippines controls in the Spratlys — an airstrip, built in 1978. Without that airstrip, the Philippines would have most likely lost control of the island, because travel by Air Force planes has been its main link to it, as it is nearly inaccessible by sea during most of the year. Even Navy vessels hesitate to go to it because of the treacherous reefs and coral formations around it.

Subsequent administrations did very little to develop Pag-Asa or the other maritime features the country has occupied in the Spratlys since the 1970s. The western end of the airstrip at Pag-Asa in fact was eroding to the sea until 2018 when President Duterte ordered it repaired and returned to its original length. It is a pathetic sight indeed, compared to the doubling of the length of the airstrip at Vietnam’s Spratly Island.

Such was the Philippines’ neglect of its claimed territories in the Spratlys that President Joseph Estrada could only order in 1999 a World War 2-era ship to be grounded in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), as a means of asserting the country’s claim over it. To this day, a platoon of Marines continues to man the rusty vessel which serves as the country’s military outpost, a sorry sight especially when compared with the fortified outposts built by Vietnam, China, Taiwan and Malaysia.


After previous administrations that just whined to the world about the country’s troubles with its neighbors, as Aquino 3rd most especially did, President Duterte at least ordered in April 2018 the most rational and realistic approach to defend Philippine claims in the SCS.

He directed the military to fortify the islands and reefs that the Philippines already occupies in the Spratlys. Duterte’s announcement was big news abroad.

While ranting against China and screaming that “what is ours is ours,” the administration of Aquino 3rd during its six years in power spent nothing to secure Pag-Asa Island. Yet it doled out P220 billion to bribe the senators so they would vote to impeach his family’s perceived enemy, then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Congress has not passed a law to fortify the islands and reefs the country currently controls and occupies in the Spratly archipelago.

*Available online at rigobertotiglao.com/shop and at Popular and La Solidaridad book stores.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ronnie

    This is the most logical and practical approach that the Philippine government should pursue for after all talking without action nothing at all! Thank you Sir for giving a positive hindsight for our government officials and political leaders. Kudos to you Sir and God bless!

  2. Dorina Rojas

    Great! Keep going Sir. We sure have a lot to learn from you on this. Deprogramming will the most difficult part but fist, we have to throw the junks to the junkyard–of course they have already been identified, classified and labelled.

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