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Emotions aside: The Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea

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By Nasser Salih Sharief

Today, the literature on the ongoing dispute on the Spratly islands and the South China Sea (SCS)  in general would fill a library. If we discount the events beginning in the second quarter of the 20th century, there is hardly any history to talk about the contested islands at all. This is hardly surprising as since time immemorial — to borrow a repetitive, if notorious, phrase from the Chinese — the area around the center of what we now know as the South China Sea is being shunned at by mariners because of the dangers of being marooned on the rocks and shoals. Whereas today, trillions worth of goods passed through the SCS hardly noticed, thanks to the advances in marine technology, In the ninth century and later geographers like Musidi, Idrisi and Ibn Khaldun portray the areas as infested by undersea monsters and demons to keep the Europeans out from the Arab monopoly of the spice trade in Europe.

Nasser with lecture attendees from Knights of Rizal and Philippine Community Council of NSW, Inc
Attendees at the lecture ‘How We Own The West Philippine Sea’ at Mount Druitt Hub in Sydney on 18 June 2024. From left: Vice Consul Frances Cleofas, Cultural Officer Nova de Labro, Consul Sheila Tario, Consul General Charmaine Aviquivil, Lady Violi Calvert, Lady Judith del Prado, Lady Michelle Baltazar (President, KRI Sydney Chapter), Lady Daisy Gonzalez Cumming

At a time when whole continents were being gifted by enterprising explorers to their kings (the new world by Christopher Columbus), Imperial China had never been interested beyond its traditional shorelines. As late as 1895, Li Hung Chang, the pre-eminent Chinese diplomat of the Qing era, had this to say about China’s view of Taiwan’s value during his negotiations with the Japanese after the first Sino-Japanese war: “… [Taiwan] was a worse than worthless possession … Utter worthlessness of the possession … I gave [the Japanese] something that I was certain China did not want…”

So, of what use a few pebbles of rocks in the middle of the SCS would be to the emperor. All Chinese maps beginning from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) down to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 CE) points to the island of Hainan as the southernmost part of the known Chinese Empire. So where are the “sacred territories” from the SCS that China owned for 2,000 years “as part of the Holy Motherland”? Would we be fooled to believe that China had actively managed to have “absolute control” with “regular maritime patrols” of tiny specks of uninhabitable rocks and submerged reefs thousands of miles further than Taiwan without a single official text or map attesting to the same? This is a tall, highfalutin claim that China continually is vague about and fails to substantiate, and as findings indicate the opposite proves to be true.

From the Philippine government’s point of view, the West Philippine Sea refers only to the portions of the South China Sea which the Philippine government claims to be part of the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). As opposed to the official position which banked merely on the technicalities of the UNCLOS, the Iranun claims a totality of the Spratly Islands as their provenance based on their ancestors’ activities and traversing the islands in their network with mainland Southeast Asia in ancient times. This is the essence of the “Declaration of Provenance of the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal by the Descendants of the Ḅaì sa Condor and Anta sa Têbouk” on 19 July 2023 in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur in the Philippines.

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If position, activities, trade, raiding and extended use of the Spratly islands over the centuries is to be the basis, then the Iranun based in the Philippines has the best claim on the Spratly Islands over any other people. The monograph bears the details. China’s claim is solely based on the discovery of Chinese fishermen in the area in the 1930s which became the inspiration of their ambition to claim the Spartly Islands. Perhaps the reason China has been insisting its “historical sovereign right” is that it suspects the Philippines is bereft of any historical narrative on the Spratly Islands, but our monograph dispels this notion. Their so-called sovereign historical claim is China’s subtle but asinine conditioning of world opinions.

The arbitral tribunal adjudicating the Philippines’ case against China in the South China Sea ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines, but it is not an award of ownership. It merely determined that the nine-dash line, recent land reclamation activities, and other activities in Philippine waters—were unlawful. In fact, the Philippines’ anxiety is reflected in the arbitrary ruling of Para 153, Award on Jurisdictions and Admissibility (dated Oct. 20, 2015): “The Philippines has not asked the Tribunal to rule on sovereignty and, indeed, has expressly and repeatedly requested that the Tribunal refrain from so doing.” [italics — mine]

Contrary to common belief, the historical narrative put forth by China is easy to chip away as unfounded, and their “fishing” do not hold a candle against the exploit of our ancestors. So, the very first act of the Senate and Congress must be to declare ownership of Sulawan (the Spratly Islands) and Panakot (Scarborough Shoals). In so far as the Iranun of the South, we have already declared the provenance of the Sulawan and Panakot as bequeathed by our ancestors. 

All these decades, China has been patiently planting structures and smuggling in their evidences while we desperately try to hold on, high tide and low tide. What is even worse is that the land reclamations they use is being ferried from the southern part of the Philippines.

We cannot temporise for long, neither can we forever nix a parley with China, unless a shooting-war is in the offing, which is unimaginable.

Let us not be timid, or we would just be a victim of the Sun Tzu art of wearing down the opposition into submission by boredom. The more we wait, the more time is against us, as before we know it, there would be a UNIGLO shopping mall in the very heart of Sulawan.

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