IT is astonishing how fake news has dominated newspaper reports on China’s alleged bullying and violation of international law by blocking our Navy’s attempts to supply the Marine contingent stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre. The vessel is a rusting dilapidated LST deliberately grounded in 1999 by the Estrada administration at Ayungin Shoal in the Spratlys to represent our claims over that area in the Spratlys.
The fake news I refer to is always reported whenever confrontations between Chinese and Philippine vessels break out at the shoal that most people do not recognize as false claims. The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s version of this appeared in its report the other day on the water-cannon blasting by a Chinese vessel of a Philippine attempting to supply the Sierra Madre:
“Beijing has been asserting its sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea (WPS), through its 10-dash line that used to be a nine-dash line. But a July 2016 arbitral award effectively dismissed China’s nine-dash line claim.”
Senate President Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri — imagine, the third in line in the presidential succession disseminating falsehood — repeated this fake news yesterday, as reported by the Philippine Star: “‘No amount of aggression can undo the fact that the Chinese government’s claims to the WPS have already been invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration,'” he said, referring to the 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s sweeping nine-dash line claim.
These statements are completely false, and hew to the definition of “fake news” as false or misleading information presented as news. What does Zubiri do with these tens of millions of funds for research?
It is a testament to the power of the US propaganda machine that this fake news has survived, despite the fact that they have been completely debunked. This fake news has been deliberately disseminated by the United States since it rouses anger at China, which it has been struggling to contain ever since the Obama administration launched its euphemistically named “Pivot to Asia” policy in 2009. Who won’t be mad if he’s told that China has completely ignored the ruling of the “Permanent Court of Arbitration” (PCA) that “invalidated its claims” in the South China Sea?
But that claim is false. In the first place, it wasn’t even the PCA that heard and issued the award on the Philippine suit against China. The PCA was merely the registrar, providing the secretarial staff and facilities for the suit. There has been a deliberate effort to falsely report that the PCA ruled on the issue, since the “Court” term in its name denotes it is the usual court we are familiar with, i.e., authorized to rule on legal issues and even impose penalties.
There are other arbitration institutions which could have been the registrar — the Singapore International Court of Arbitration would have been the cheapest as it closer to Manila — but the clever US lawyers chose the PCA located at The Hague because falsely referring to it as the body that heard the ruling had more propaganda impact, that is, “The Hague ruling.”
Rather, the body that heard the suit and handed down the award was merely an ad hoc panel of five purported experts on Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) — most of whom the Philippines had a hand in choosing — organized under an obscure provision of the Unclos on compulsory arbitration, an oxymoron of sorts as China refused to participate in the proceedings. How can it be an arbitration, which in common usage means a voluntary process by which two parties agree to settle a dispute, with both authorizing an arbiter to rule on the quarrel?
The Chinese have never claimed that Ayungin Shoal and most of the Spratlys are theirs because it falls within its nine-dash line. Our officials have been totally confused since they were thinking that the China’s nine-dash line was of the same genre as the six solid lines (defined by precise geographic coordinates) that President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. drew in 1978 on the Spratlys and declared that every feature in it, including the waters, are within Philippine territory he termed as the Kalayaan Island Group.
This dashed line — not even a solid line as a nation’s boundaries are universally drawn — indeed appears on China’s official maps since 1947. However, the map has no “legend” to explain what it is, and China refuses to explain what it is.
Whatever explanation of the line China may give in the future — there is speculation that China may claim that it doesn’t represent its boundaries, but merely its traditional fishing waters — it has not been the basis for China’s territorial claim that the Spratlys (which they call Nansha) is theirs.
Rather, China claims its sovereignty is evidenced by historical records, official maps and the 1959 Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea of 1958 and the 1992 Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone. Chinese scholars have even pointed out a fatal flaw in our sovereignty claim over Ayungin and the Kalayaan islands. The 1898 Treaty of Paris by which Spain turned over its colony to the US defined Philippine territory with precise geographical coordinates. The Kalayaan Island Group wasn’t included in that territory. And indeed Marcos had to issue a Presidential Decree 1596 to declare that the islands were henceforth part of Philippine territory.
Yes, the arbitral panel ruled the line has no basis under Unclos. However, it was a useless ruling for our disputes with China since the superpower has never claimed it is the basis of its claims of sovereignty over what it calls its Nansha islands. The nine-dash line was a straw man which Aquino 3rd’s American lawyers used to claim that China has no legitimate claims in the South China Sea.
Indeed the arbitral panel in its very first page emphasized that it has not determined in any way what country has legitimate sovereignty over Ayungin and the Spratly since this is beyond its authority and that of Unclos itself. That body has authority only over maritime claims, given to it by its 167 signatories since it took effect as a treaty in 1994. There is nobody in the world that can rule unilaterally which conflicting sovereign claims are valid or not.
It was retired justice Antonio Carpio who first fabricated and spread this fake news that the nine-dash line is China’s justification for its claims in the Spratlys. Carpio declared in nearly all of his speeches and in his lengthy 2017 electronic book, filled with irrelevant maps: “China’s nine-dashed line claim, through which China is aggressively asserting ‘indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters’ and ‘sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil’ enclosed by the dashes, is the main driver of the South China Sea dispute.”
To his credit, though, Carpio has recently done a volte-face, wiggling out of his former wrong stand in a lecture at the Ateneo Law School, and pointed out that “the territorial disputes remain unresolved because Unclos does not govern it.” (See “Carpio: Just wait for sea levels to rise,” Oct. 23, 2023).
Our government is even confused as to why they are claiming Ayungin Shoal. Our Foreign Affairs department’s claim (based on its Aug. 8, 2023 statement) is that we have sovereign rights in Ayungin Shoal since it is within our exclusive economic zone (EZZ). This is a change from its past — stronger — position that Ayungin Shoal is ours since it is within the Kalayaan Island Group that Marcos Sr. created in 1978 and declared as part of Philippine territory.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. seems to be confused even as he mainly abides with his father’s stance: “We continue to assert our sovereignty. We continue to assert our territorial rights in the face of all of these challenges and consistent with international laws and Unclos.” He is claiming sovereignty over Ayungin, which his DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) isn’t when it declared it is within our EEZ, in which case we exercise only certain exclusive rights (mainly to exploit the area’s natural resources) but not sovereignty. Yet he refers to Unclos, which doesn’t deal with sovereignty but only with a country’s rights in its EEZ.
The DFA, however, claimed in its most recent statement: “As a low tide elevation, Ayungin Shoal can neither be the subject of a sovereignty claim nor is it capable of appropriation under international law — a fact affirmed by the 2016 arbitral award. China cannot, therefore, lawfully exercise sovereignty over it.” Chinese scholars have debunked that argument, pointing out that by saying that Ayungin is not subject to a sovereignty claim, it actually already rules on a claim of sovereignty, which is beyond the authority of the Unclos. That DFA claim, however, in effect means we lose a vast area of territory: the Kalayaan Island Group, 98 percent of which is below water and consists mostly of low-tide elevations.
In the Chinese viewpoint, it is not a bully, but merely a sovereign state defending its territory.
China and we, and the academe can argue forever which claim is legitimate or not — uselessly. The reality is that there exists a territorial dispute, with all countries in the world — even the United States — saying they don’t take sides in this quarrel.
Leaders of Vietnam which also claims the Spratly are more geopolitically mature. They haven’t been belligerent toward China nor have they tested the Chinese resolve to defend their sovereignty except when the superpower tried to establish an oil rig in what is clearly their territory. They have reaped a bounty because of that rational stand, drawing in the biggest Chinese investments in Southeast Asia. However, the Vietnamese have been assiduous in strengthening their hold on areas they already occupy, among others, by installing oil rigs modified to be military outposts and even building several of their own artificial islands.
Our leaders — or is it just our Navy and the Coast Guard? — have taken an emotional, irrational stance, claiming to the world that China is a bully grabbing our territory, and that the US and other countries must come to the aid of David (us) fighting a Goliath (China).
National Security Adviser Eduardo Año and his assistant for communications Jonathan Malaya have spent too much time in their former jobs in the Interior and Local Government department that they don’t realize that the South China disputes are much more complicated — given the involvement of the US propaganda machine — than the local government code or dealing with mayors. I don’t think they have even read the award by the arbitral panel handed down in 2016. They should first either take a leave to study the South China Sea issue. They have been simply sedulously reading the American script.
I challenge them to dispute my statements rather than continue their name-calling tack. If they can disprove my claims in this column, I will give up writing a column in this respected paper. But if they can’t, they should resign from their posts: their ignorant advise to the President on our disputes with China and on Ayungin Shoal has put our national security in danger, as I will explain on Wednesday.
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