Two Filipinos have placed themselves on the front line of Southeast Asia’s faltering battle against Beijing’s land grab in the South China Sea.
Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio and Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, have emerged as the most astute and authoritative critics of the Duterte administration’s policies on China and the West Philippine Sea. In 2016 Carpio deployed his legal acumen to convince the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that China’s claim to almost all the South China Sea, via its so-called “nine-dash line”, is without international legal basis.
Since then, Carpio has spent much of his time and resources raising awareness of the Philippines’ historic rights to a number of islands in the strategic waterway.
He has written a book on the subject, and exhibited some 60 ancient maps at locations across the country, including the famed Murillo Velarde Map of 1734 showing that the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal – only 124 nautical miles from the Philippine coast but now occupied by China – has been an indisputable part of Philippine territory for centuries.
Batongbacal, on the other hand, has led the charge in demolishing many of the careless, seemingly too-accommodating pronouncements of the Duterte administration on China and its designs on the West Philippine Sea and the Benham (or Philippine) Rise, another resource-rich waterway to which the Philippines has been awarded exclusive sovereign rights.
It was Batongbacal who revealed the ignorance behind presidential spokesperson Harry Roque’s contention that the government had granted China permission to conduct research at Benham Rise since no Philippine institution was capable of the same.
On the contrary, Batongbacal said, Filipino scientists from the national university and other institutions have conducted numerous research expeditions to Benham, despite scant support from the government. Their findings were, in fact, instrumental in beefing up the paper that the Philippines submitted to the United Nations Commission on the [Limits of the] Continental Shelf, which in 2012 declared that the country has exclusive rights to the vast underwater plateau off the coast of Isabela.
Carpio and Batongbacal’s voices are now united again in opposition against the latest apparently ill-considered statement from President Rodrigo Duterte – that the Philippines may sign a “co-ownership” deal with China to exploit resources in the South China Sea, specifically an area some 50 kilometres west of our Palawan coast that is undisputed Philippine territory.
Beijing is said to have offered to include the area in a proposed deal to jointly explore Reed Bank in the West Philippine Sea for energy deposits.
The idea of allowing China to exploit part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone is not only dangerous but also unlawful, Carpio warned: The “co-ownership” model would amount to ceding half of the West Philippine Sea to the Chinese, and “there is absolutely no way under the Constitution” that any sitting Philippine administration could give away the national patrimony like that.
Batongbacal echoed that position, pointing out: “In so far as territory is concerned, in so far as the exclusive economic zone and our natural resources are concerned, the Constitution mandates that the benefits of our marine resources, our marine wealth up to the exclusive economic zone, are reserved exclusively for Filipinos.”
Interestingly, only the presidency has floated the idea of “co-ownership”; not one statement on the matter has issued from Beijing. The enthusiasm to share territory, it appears, only comes from the Philippines.
Many are now asking how thoroughly this matter was studied and scrutinised before the president was convinced to utter those gravely consequential words in public.