What’s in a name?
China recently gave names to 80 geologic features in the Spratlys and the Paracels. Twenty-five of these features are above water at high tide, while 55 are undersea features. The high tide features are entitled to 12 NM territorial seas. Undersea features beyond the territorial seas are measurable reliefs on the ocean floor, like mounts or ridges, forming part of either the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or extended continental shelf (ECS) of a coastal state.
As ruled by the arbitral tribunal at The Hague, all the high-tide features in the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal are entitled only to 12-nautical mile territorial seas. Beyond these territorial seas are the EEZ and ECS of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea.
Is there any significance to China’s giving names to these features? Names do not determine sovereignty, sovereign rights, or jurisdiction. However, the state that has sovereignty over a high-tide feature has the right to name such feature, including under sea features within its territorial sea. All the claimant states have given their own names to some or all of the high-tide features in the Spratlys. China, however, has this historical narrative that it was the first to name the high-tide features in the Spratlys. This is, of course, fake history. The Philippines has the oldest map, the 1734 Velarde-Bagay-Suarez map, that gave the first name to the Spratlys—Los Bajos de Paragua. The phrase “los bajos” means shoals, and Paragua was the Spanish name for Palawan. This same 1734 map also gave the first name to Scarborough Shoal—Panacot, a Tagalog word which means danger. There is no older map from China or any other state giving a name to the Spratlys or Scarborough Shoal.
The name China was not even given by the Chinese state or people. The name China was first used by the ancient Hindus and Persians. The Chinese called their country Zhongguo or the Middle Kingdom. The name South China Sea was given by Portuguese navigators who were the first Europeans to arrive in this sea. Since ancient times up to now the Chinese name for this sea is Nan Hai or South Sea.
Who has the right to name undersea features beyond the territorial sea? The 1972 UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographic Names tasked a Group of Experts to study the naming of seas “beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” The 1977 Conference noted that “the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) has designated a technical committee to recommend improvements on xxx naming oceans and seas xxx beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”
The 1983 IHO Guidelines for the Standardization of Undersea Feature Names state that “international concern for naming undersea features is limited to those xxx outside of waters under the jurisdiction of states.” Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), coastal states have sovereign rights and jurisdiction in their EEZ and ECS.
Starting 2001, however, the IHO revised its Guidelines to define the phrase “beyond the limits of national jurisdiction” to mean “outside territorial waters.” In short, a coastal state no longer has the absolute right to name undersea features beyond its territorial sea. Who then has the right to approve names for undersea features in the EEZ and ECS? Both IHO’s 2001 and 2013 Guidelines provide, “Names approved by national authorities in waters beyond the territorial sea should be accepted by other States if the names have been applied in conformance with internationally accepted principles.”
All the South China Sea claimant states, except the Philippines, have designated their national authorities to approve names of undersea features beyond their territorial seas. It takes only an executive order by the President to designate a Philippine government agency like the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority to be the national authority to approve names of undersea features beyond the territorial sea.
Under Unclos, no foreign country can conduct marine scientific research (MSR) in our EEZ and in the seabed of our ECS without the consent of the Philippines. We can grant such MSR on the condition that the naming of undersea features must be approved by our national authority. In that way, we can be assured that in the West Philippine Sea there will be no Limahong Mount or Koxinga Ridge.
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