PH has better claim
For more than a month now, a vessel or two of the Philippine government have been facing eyeball to eyeball dozens of Chinese vessels at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. Both China and the Philippines claim historic rights over the shoal which is 124 nautical miles off the coast of Zambales.
Recently, Philippine and US government officials discussed in Washington, DC the South China Sea issue. The United States was neutral in the controversy but expressed interest in the freedom of navigation. The officials took note of the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT); the United States promised, as it has promised before, assistance in upgrading the Philippine Navy. Earlier, the Chinese asked the United States not to meddle in the issue.
It is recalled that Secretary Henry Kissinger took the view that while the United States was bound by the MDT, the Kalayaan group of islands, which became a municipality of Palawan in 1978, would not, as a disputed territory, fall within the term “metropolitan” Philippine territory. However, US State Secretary Cyrus Vance informed Gen. Carlos P. Romulo in a diplomatic letter dated Jan. 6, 1979 that under the terms of the MDT, the United States was bound to counteract, in accordance with its constitutional processes, any attack on “Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” Hence, the Kalayaan group in the Spratlys was evidently embraced in the US commitment.
The Vance assurance clearly covers the present situation in Scarborough, a shoal in the South West Philippine Sea “in the Pacific.” Ergo, an attack by China against any Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the area would trigger, under the MDT, American retaliation, in accordance with its constitutional processes, against “the common enemy.”
But Manila wisely chooses to follow the path of diplomatic solution. After Beijing spurned negotiations, Manila has decided to elevate the issue to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) itself, for the settlement of disputes on the application or interpretation of the provisions of the convention.
About five decades ago, the Philippines was also prepared to go to the International Court of Justice on the issue of Sabah. We invited Malaysia to The Hague. Malaysia, firmly backed up by the United Kingdom, refused. And the Philippine claim to Sabah has remained in limbo since then.
Now President Aquino need not spend sleepless nights. Under the Unclos, member-states like China and the Philippines have the special obligation to settle disputes involving the application or interpretation of Unclos provisions. China has to join the Philippines in Hamburg. From all indications, the Philippines has a better claim.
—NELSON D. LAVIÑA,
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