Designating archipelagic sea lanes
Currently pending with the House committee on foreign affairs are four bills aimed at establishing archipelagic sea lanes (ASL) in Philippine waters. These are House Bill Nos. 1095, 2465, 2843, and 3894. Of these, HB 2465 filed by Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, has been in the news lately with the author calling on fellow lawmakers to urgently pass it.
I agree with Rodriguez that it’s urgent that we pass a law establishing our country’s archipelagic sea lanes, as they are vital in protecting our national security and economic interests. It is also a right and duty accorded under Article 53 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (Unclos) to archipelagic states such as the Philippines.
The explanatory note of HB 3894 principally authored by Rep. Rachel Arenas points out that “without any officially established ASLs, foreign vessels may pass through the country using any route within our internal waters and airspace normally used for international navigation.”
By designating ASLs, our country will be able to limit the areas or passages where foreign vessels can pass through. This, in turn, will enable the efficient use of resources for monitoring our maritime territory and our exclusive economic zone. Resources can now be focused on areas where passage is allowed to ensure that vessels passing through do so in accordance with Unclos provisions.
Having designated ASLs also simplifies the conduct of operations of maritime enforcement authorities in areas not covered by them. There will be less room for ambiguity on the status of vessels that are spotted in areas outside ASLs. Vessels transgressing the ASL can no longer make the excuse that they are simply exercising the right of innocent passage through archipelagic waters.
With the benefits provided by such a measure, it begs the question: why did the bill languish in previous Congresses? There have been arguments raised on how such a law could be enforced effectively. What’s the point of passing a law if it can’t be enforced?
But this only becomes a problem if the law is violated. Given that this is consistent with Unclos provisions, most responsible countries would normally observe and respect international norms and rules. Having designated ASLs strengthens our case against violators who are nationals of these countries, and we can more forcefully assert our sovereignty in these situations.
As for countries that take advantage of the power imbalance in their favor, there are other ways and mechanisms to deal with that problem. We shouldn’t let this complication derail what is on balance a net benefit for the country’s national security and economic interests.
While international law gives us the right to designate ASLs and thereby limit the movement of foreign vessels in our waters and air space, and facilitate as well our ability to manage and secure such areas, we still need to pass a law to avail of this right and benefit.
Even as Rodriguez has made a very public call for the urgent passage of his bill, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada has filed a similar measure. Senate Bill No. 462 is currently pending in the Senate foreign relations committee. Hopefully, with Congress back in session after its brief adjournment, these bills designating ASLs would be among its priorities.
Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer, and was posted as a diplomat at the Philippine consulate general in Los Angeles and the Philippine Embassy in Washington.
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