A major part of the South China Sea / West Philippine Sea dispute stems from misunderstandings on the definitions of maritime features. These features, as stated in the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), determine the extent of Territorial Seas and Exclusive Economic Zones. It follows that countries who ratified the convention are bound by the agreement. It is unfortunate that although shoals, rocks, reefs, islands, and low tide elevations are reported in the press, why they are relevant allude us. Therefore, it is essential that we understand what they are and how they affect the sovereignty and rights of the countries they belong to.
In 2009, China, an UNCLOS signatory, submitted to the UN its nine dash line claim that covers the entire South China Sea. Countries countries such as: The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, and Taiwan cried in outrage over the claim because it clearly violates their rights over their waters. Moreover, the US, Australia, and Europe expressed their distress over it because the area is (1) rich in hydrocarbon resources; (2) a major thoroughfare of international shipping trade; (3) assures food security for coastline countries; and (4) demarcate boundaries between countries, thus determine their domestic and foreign security policies.
International bickering, saber rattling, and local protests aside, what is it really that makes our seas ours? In an article published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Solicitor General Francis Jardaleza said, “[y]ou need to have land before you can have rights to the sea. It’s as simple as that.You cannot just have rights to the sea without owning land.” His statement is the meat and core of the matter: Land means territory. China is a country, thus it has lands and territorial waters. However, the nine dash line encompasses maritime features and waters that are so distant from the Chinese mainland that it defies common sense. We can always say ‘this is far from that,’ ‘this belongs to him because it’s closer to that,’ and so on, but from a non-subjective perspective how can they be substantiated?
The UNCLOS defines three different types of maritime features, and they are as follows:
Islands entitle a country that owns it a 12 nautical mile (approximately 22 kilometers) territorial sea from the coastline with which it has full sovereignty. The island is also entitled to a 200 nm (approximately 370 km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Also, this extends to the air space over the seas. A country can exclude foreign entities from its territorial sea. Moreover, it gives the country the sole right to exploit the resources within it such as fish and also mineral and oil reserves. Pag-asa island, an island 280nm west of Puerto Princesa, Palawan is an example of this. The disputed Ayungin reef is in the vicinity of this island.
Rocks are mostly submerged maritime features that protrude above water during high tide. They cannot sustain human or economic life. Shoals, on the other hand, are rocky protrusions that rise three (3) meters above the water during high tide. They are entitled to 12nm territorial sea but no EEZ. The Scarborough shoal, 120nm from Luzon; Johnson reef, 180 nm from Palawan; Cuarteron reef, 240nm from Palawan; and Fiery Cross reef, 255 nm from Palawan are examples of rocks and shoals.
Reefs or Low tide elevations are submerged rocks that are not visible above water during low tide. These maritime features are not entitled to neither territorial sea nor EEZ. Examples of this include, the Ayungin reef, 100nm from Palawan; Mischief reef, 130nm from Palawan; Kennan Reef, 180 nm from Palawan; Gaven Reef, 205 nm from Palawan; and Subi Reef, 230nm from Palawan.
Sun Tzu, in his iconic Art of War, said, “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But, if orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.” In essence, clarity of information is crucial not only in military terms but in regular life. If we want to assert our rights, and if we want to avoid war, it is of paramount import that we inform everyone, in the simplest and clearest way possible, including China, as to the definitions of maritime features that delineate our territories from theirs. Likewise, in the event of a military confrontation or global conflict, which I believe is just a matter of time, the aggressor and agent provocateur will clearly be identified. The oppressors and instigators of war must be reminded that history is a very cruel and vindictive mistress.