TRIUMPS at the international level are rare for a small country like the Philippines. But in 2012 and 2016, we did get two of those triumphs, historic ones if I may add.
In 2012, The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) supported our contention that the 13-million-hectare underwater plateau called Benham Rise, which is located off Aurora province in Luzon (eastern side), is part of our country’s continental shelf. As such, the Philippines was granted the “sovereign right” to exploit the resources in the area.
In 2016, the Philippines won its case before the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal, which ruled that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rites over a portion of the South China Sea referred to as the West Philippine Sea. This includes submerged reefs and islets, among them the Scarborough shoal that China seized in 2012.
Those triumphs were not gifts from heaven but something we fought for. In the case of Benham Rise, we started proposing the area as a possible extended continental shelf (ECS) of the country as early as in 2001. We filed the formal claim in April 2009 before the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS).
The ruling that was favorable to us was handed down in 2012.
Our triumph in the UN Arbitral Tribunal is fairly recent and well-discussed considering the ruling’s implications. The case was filed in January 2013 after China seized Scarborough shoal, which is located near Zambales province in Luzon (west coast). The ruling came out in early July or a few days after Rodrigo Duterte succeeded Benigno Aquino III as Philippine president.
Unfortunately, we seem to be losing a handle of those triumphs.
Recently, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that a Chinese survey ship loitered on Benham Rise for three months last year. The concern was that the ship’s intention may not have only been for passage but to look into the area’s resources. The President, however, downplayed the incident, even saying in one press conference that the Chinese ship was given permission to go there. Stories about the Philippines and China jointly exploiting Benham Rise’s resources were soon floated.
As for the West Philippine Sea, the Duterte administration, which has forged close ties with China, has not made efforts to assert our claim to the area using the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling.
Now reports quoting a Chinese official say that China would set up an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal. The worry is that the shoal would end up becoming a Chinese military outpost.
Our triumphs relative to our claims to the West Philippine Sea and Benham Rise are important because these can generate the all-important world opinion against any country that will seize those territories. But world opinion only matters if we ourselves are determined to assert our claims, something that government seems unwilling to do now.