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Managing the West Philippine Sea

/ 09:35 PM September 22, 2012

Tensions among rival claimant-states to the waters and land features of the West Philippine Sea (WPS)—particularly China, the Philippines and Vietnam—have escalated significantly in the last several years, bringing the Philippines to center stage as a key participant in the future of security and stability in our part of the world.

The territorial and resource disputes themselves are not new and have been the subject of policy action and deliberation for decades. The challenges are not expected to be resolved easily or soon, but will likely continue to demand the attention of government and the Filipino public for decades to come.

There is a need to draw the attention of all concerned Filipino stakeholders—particularly those in government—to the urgent need for a strategic framework for the management of our territorial, maritime jurisdiction and resource disputes in the WPS.


We have come together not to try to provide answers to all the policy questions, but to suggest policy agenda and to underscore the urgent need for a strategic vision, more permanent institutions, as well as for more effective arrangements for policymaking and coordination to address such agenda.


Fundamental problem

The Philippines has long-standing territorial and jurisdictional disputes with several states bordering the WPS, as well as undelimited maritime boundaries. These disputes affect the economic, national security, human security and environmental interests of the country, and moreover, impact on regional stability and the prospects for successful regional integration in East Asia.

Philippine efforts to assert sovereignty in the WPS and to implement provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, in line with national development and security goals, are stymied by the claims and actions of other countries.

Recent territorial tensions have moreover occurred against the backdrop of broader geopolitical shifts, including rivalry for regional influence between great powers. This current geopolitical context may provide both challenges and opportunities for the advancement of Philippine interests and for the peaceful resolution of these disputes.

There is a need for a comprehensive and strategic approach to policymaking on the WPS, taking into consideration the myriad short-term to long-term interests of the country at stake, the fluid regional and international environment and the domestic imperatives that will affect how government prioritizes the allocation of its efforts and resources.

Imperatives of PH policy


FIRST IMPERATIVE. Sustainable development of our marine economy and resources: particularly fisheries, oil and gas, and other mineral deposits.

The Philippines is the world’s sixth largest producer of fish, with fish being a main protein source and fisheries a main source of livelihood for our people. However, in the WPS and other waters adjacent to the archipelago, fisheries are threatened by both reef degradation and overfishing. Uncontrolled fishing in the area will diminish resources for current and future needs of Filipinos.

International research data also indicate that the Philippines has significant oil and gas as well as other mineral deposits, particularly around the Palawan/Recto Bank area. Access to these resources is a core Philippine interest in the WPS.

SECOND IMPERATIVE. Promoting maritime security and defense, and contributing to good order at sea.

In the West Philippine Sea, there is a conflation of defense challenges and law enforcement concerns due to the geographical overlap of Philippine EEZ and continental shelf (areas that are subject to civilian jurisdiction) with the disputed areas, including Kalayaan Islands and Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag Shoal), which harbor foreign military presence.

In view of the limited capabilities of our Navy, Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies, and the need to allocate resources for their upgrading, their respective roles and mandates will need to be clarified for the short-term to long-term planning horizons.

For instance, although the Navy is traditionally deputized for antipoaching operations, its use against foreign fishermen projects a militarist posture and leaves the country vulnerable to allegations of threatening to use force. Demilitarization of fisheries disputes was in fact  recommended earlier by various quarters.

On another note, the Philippines exercises full sovereignty over its territorial sea (the 12 nautical miles measured from its baselines), and over all archipelagic waters enclosed within them, but even these areas are subject to the recognition of certain passage rights in favor of foreign ships. There is currently some debate among our legal experts on whether, when and where to establish archipelagic sea-lanes for their passage.

THIRD IMPERATIVE. Assertion of sovereignty over territory and the exercise of sovereign rights over the EEZ and continental shelf.

Unclos accords the Philippines exclusive sovereign rights to explore and exploit the fisheries, the oil and gas resources, as well as minerals within its EEZ and continental shelf. These maritime zones should, however, not be confused with and regarded as equivalent to land territory over which a coastal state exercises full sovereignty and control.

Within the EEZ/continental shelf, a coastal state is generally entitled to sovereign rights which are rights that are less than full sovereignty.

Moreover, while focus has been on the exclusivity of maritime territories and jurisdictions, Unclos also requires coastal states to cooperate pending the resolution of disputes and encourages them to share the resources of the sea through provisional agreements like joint development arrangements. This is also a policy question yet to be addressed.


Strategic approach, principles

The West Philippine Sea issues are cross-cutting issues that impinge on both foreign policy and domestic policy. Domestic archipelagic imperatives (i.e. access to resources, protection of the environment and national security) are the true driving force behind national policy.

Only a strong domestic capability (e.g. credible defense and law enforcement, upgraded science and technology, and proactive maritime resource development programs) can be the basis of effective diplomacy and relations with the international community. The development and security of the Philippine archipelago requires a strategic and whole-of-government approach.

Beyond the WPS, there is likewise a need for all Filipinos to rediscover our archipelagic heritage and to write our own future story as a maritime and seafaring nation. The mass media, social networks on the Internet, the educational system and government information agencies are potential instruments for enhancing people’s understanding of the issues. Citizens’ participation in decision-making will be vital to any successful policy.

We propose certain guiding principles for our future WPS policies.

1. The West Philippine Sea and its resources are part of the national patrimony. Our national interest in the WPS is defined as that which will serve the greatest good of the greatest number of the Filipino people;

2. Our policies and strategies with respect to resource development, defense, law enforcement, diplomacy and international law shall be consistent with this definition of the national interest;

3. We affirm commitment to the peaceful settlement of interstate disputes on the basis of justice, equality, mutual respect and upholding internationally accepted rules and norms of behavior.

4. We affirm commitment to an independent foreign policy that upholds the dignity of the Filipino people and our tradition of courage and self-reliance;

5. WPS policy should demonstrate the positive contributions that the Philippines and the Filipino people can make to the Asia Pacific region and to the world.

Major recommendations

1. We recommend that government take steps to establish or strengthen current institutions that shall:

  • Undertake policy formulation, strategic planning, policy coordination and periodic assessments of the policy environment;
  • Ensure that the implementation of plans and programs are in accordance with policy guidelines;
  • Serve as crisis management mechanisms tasked with providing early warning and quick response to incidents;
  • Be supported by adequate resources and staff, including provision of strategic analyses and real-time intelligence; and
  • Provide institutional continuity regardless of changes in administration and leadership.

2. We recommend that government develop a comprehensive, long-term program for international legal action on issues relating to the disputes. Such a program may include but not be limited to the negotiation of boundaries, filing of cases, seeking arbitration and/or advisory opinion on critical issues from competent bodies, while taking into consideration the need to create favorable political, diplomatic and security conditions for conflict resolution.

3. We recommend that government develop strategic economic resources development programs for the Philippine EEZ and continental shelf, with respect to:

  • Sustainable and responsible fisheries, with government assistance for small-scale fishermen;
  • Optimized exploitation of oil and gas resources, balancing economic interests and the sovereignty/security concerns;
  • Exploratory surveys of other offshore mineral resources;
  • Establishing where necessary, transitional guidelines and rules for law enforcement in selected EEZ areas under dispute, taking into consideration domestic laws and the relevant Unclos provisions; and
  • Building the capacity of our law enforcement agencies so they can protect Filipinos engaged in the exercise of sovereign rights over the EEZ.

4. We recommend that government develop a clear, feasible and resolute security and defense strategy for the WPS based on:

Sound understanding of shifting regional dynamics and geopolitical rebalancing taking place;

Factual and accurate threat and risk assessments that look at capabilities, political intentions and actions of potential adversaries;

Correct appreciation of our own security and defense capabilities and weaknesses, including the potential for allied assistance and the influence of remaining internal security challenges;

Clear definition of the distinct as well as coordinated roles of our civilian and military organizations, in ways that help build their core competencies and primary mandates; and

Anticipation of various scenarios which our security forces may encounter.

5. We recommend that bilateral and regional diplomacy pertaining to the WPS:

  • Be strategized in the context of comprehensive foreign policy goals such as promotion of national security, economic development and the welfare of nationals;
  • Contribute ultimately to strengthening regional and international peace and stability based on international law, norms and standards;
  • Be guided by our long-term aspirations for our relations with Asean, China, the United States, neighboring countries in Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, and other key stakeholders.

6. Finally, we recommend that programs be undertaken to inculcate archipelagic consciousness and identity of the Philippines, and the Filipinos as a maritime nation, including but not limited to:

  • Preparation of studies and wide dissemination of information about Philippine maritime interests;
  • Building grassroots constituencies for the marine and coastal environment, safety and freedom of navigation, maritime disaster-preparedness, regional cooperation, among other things;
  • Introduction of relevant courses and content into all levels of education and training in government;
  • Investment in developing next-generation expertise on the legal, security, international relations, fisheries, geography, geology, marine scientific and other dimensions relevant to the WPS.

This initiative began months before the most recent tensions with China erupted over Bajo de Masinloc. Intended to draw attention to the strategic questions, this paper does not provide specific recommendations on how to manage the most pressing or immediate concerns.

Urgency of framework

The Bajo de Masinloc crisis, nevertheless, affected the process, most especially by underscoring the urgency of the need for a strategic framework. As a postscript, the authors are hopeful that dialogue with China will soon commence to help expand both sides’ understanding of the roots of conflict and to explore steps toward better management of relations.

We have been grappling with many of these issues for decades. Many more years will likely pass before we achieve our aspirations of a West Philippine Sea that is truly free from conflict, safe from any form of violence or illegal activity, where Filipinos are able to enjoy as well as to share nature’s bounty, where countries live in equality and mutual respect, and where strong regional institutions are in place upholding shared principles and norms.

We hope that what we have presented here will be an important step in that direction.

(This is an abridged version of a white paper prepared by the WPS Informal Expert Group. The paper is an outcome of consultations and workshops held under the auspices of the University of the Philippines’ Asian Center.


The 10 authors, who in the UN tradition constituted themselves as an informal “expert group,” are Commo. Carlos L. Agustin, former National Defense College president; Lauro Baja Jr., former foreign affairs undersecretary; Guillermo R. Balce, former energy undersecretary; Jay L. Batongbacal, UP College of Law professor; Dr. Aileen S.P. Baviera, UP Asian Center professor; Rodel A. Cruz, former defense undersecretary; Commo. Roland S. Recomono, former naval attaché to Washington D.C.; Malcolm I. Sarmiento Jr., former Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources director; VAdm. Eduardo Ma R. Santos, former Navy Flag Officer in Command; and Leticia Ramos-Shahani, former senator.


One purpose of the white paper is to stimulate active public discourse on the country’s maritime concerns in the WPS. Feedback, comments, and proposals for discussion are welcome. The authors may be reached at



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