Bajo de Masinloc
It is just as well that the Philippines has decided to unilaterally elevate its dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos). Despite China’s assurances that it wants the matter diplomatically settled, it has not made any effort to have the issue mediated. Instead it has browbeaten the Philippines and showed off its military might, aggravating the standoff in the process. It brooks no opposition and its arrogance is irredeemable.
The Philippines stands on solid legal ground in asserting its sovereign territorial rights over Bajo de Masinloc, as the shoal is called in the Philippines. The Philippines invokes the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which recognizes the 200-nautical mile (NM) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, which includes the shoal.
Bajo de Masinloc is part of the municipality of Masinloc, Zambales province. It is located 124 NM west of Zambales and is within the 200-nautical mile EEZ and the Philippine Continental Shelf. China maintains that historically the shoal—Huangyan Island to the Chinese—is part of its territory.
But Bajo de Masinloc is not an island. It’s a shoal. It is a ring-shaped coral reef, which has several rocks encircling a lagoon. Several of these rocks are above water even during high tide. The rest are below water during high tide. This explains why it’s called by its Spanish name, Bajo de Masinloc, that is, “under” the waters of Masinloc. Bajo de Masinloc’s chain of reefs and rocks is about 124 NM from the nearest coast of Luzon and approximately 472 NM from the nearest coast of China. By the relative distance alone, the area is clearly part of Philippine territory. Bajo de Masinloc is also within the Philippines’ 200-NM EEZ and continental shelf.
The Department of Foreign Affairs explains that a distinction has to be made between the rock features of Bajo de Masinloc and the larger body of water and continental shelf where the geological features are situated. The Philippines exercises full sovereignty and jurisdiction over the rocks of Bajo de Masinloc, and sovereign rights over the waters and continental shelf where the rock features of Bajo de Masinloc are situated.
China claims historic right over Bajo de Masinloc, claiming the area to have been discovered during the Yuan Dynasty. But the Philippines has been exercising effective occupation and jurisdiction over the area. Maps produced in the Philippines, Europe and the United States identify it as part of Philippine territory. A lighthouse was put up there in 1965 and renovated in 1992. Representatives Roque Ablan and Jose Yap put up a Philippine flag there in 1997. In 2009, the Philippines passed the amended archipelagic baseline law that identified Bajo de Masinloc as among the “regime of islands” that form part of its territory, consistent with the Unclos. The National Museum has been conducting archaeological surveys and other Philippine agencies have done geodetic researches there.
Most important, Philippine fishermen have been fishing there and the Philippine Coast Guard has been enforcing strict Philippine laws against the destruction of corals and the capture of endangered marine species. Against all this the Chinese have chosen to flout the rules and raid Bajo de Masinloc’s rich marine resources at the cost of environmental conservation. In the standoff, the Coast Guard dispatched an inspection team that reported large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks, which were found in the compartments of the Chinese fishing vessels. Beijing calls them fishermen, but the evidence shows they are poachers.
The harvesting of endangered marine species is illegal in the Philippines and under international law, in particular the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The protection extended by China to its poachers reveals again its arrogant disdain of international standards of conduct among states.
The Philippines should vigorously pursue all forms of international arbitration and mediation to settle the dispute while enforcing its effective jurisdiction over Bajo de Masinloc. Manila should reveal China’s true colors before the international community. Let the bully be exposed and humiliated.
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