Why Aquino calls disputed areas 'rocks,' not islands

by Jojo Malig, ABS-CBNNews.com

Posted at Apr 28 2014 08:51 PM | Updated as of Apr 29 2014 11:36 AM

MANILA - President Benigno Aquino summarized the Philippines' case against China when he called some of the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea as mere "rocks" and not islands.

Aquino, during his press briefing at the Palace on Monday with his US counterpart, Barack Obama, described the disputed areas as a "few rocks that are not even inhabitable."

The Department of Foreign Affairs' (DFA) 4,000 page "memorial" filed before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is all about the Philippines' desire for the disputed areas to be officially classified by the international panel as rocks, rather than islands, according to Keith Johnson of Foreign Policy magazine.

"On such arcane definitions can hang the fate of nations -- or in this case, the extension of economic rights of states to the seas and seabed off their coasts," he said.

"Simply put, islands are land, which entitle their owners to enjoy exclusive economic rights for 200 nautical miles in all directions, including rights to fishing and energy extraction. Rocks aren't, and don't," Johnson said.

If the tribunal rules that the disputed areas are rocks, they can't be claimed by China under its infamous "9-dash line" drawn up by renegade Kuomintang forces in Taiwan in 1947.

According to the Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, within the maritime area encompassed by China's 9-dash line are submerged banks, reefs, and low tide elevations that do not qualify as islands under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but are parts of the Philippine continental shelf, or the international seabed.

"In addition, China has occupied certain small, uninhabitable coral projections that are barely above water at high tide, and which are 'rocks' under Article 121 (3) of UNCLOS," he said regarding the UNCLOS Arbitral Proceedings against China.

UNCLOS requires countries to surrender the majority of their historical maritime claims in favor of the maritime zones awarded under the convention.

Claims to islands and other geographical features are not affected by the treaty, but any claim to sovereignty over maritime areas must fall within either the territorial waters or exclusive economic zones awarded to those features by UNCLOS.

The International Crisis Group believes that under UNCLOS, China is not likely to get all of the territory it is claiming.

“Beijing has insisted that its historic ‘nine-dashed line’ map is a valid territorial claim. But its contours are vague, and the chart, which encompasses almost all of the South China Sea, is not recognised under international law,” it said.

Henry S. Bensurto, Jr., secretary-general of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs' Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs, said any management of disputes in the West Philippine Sea must be based on international law.

Bensurto has dismissed China Beijing's 9-dash line.

"[Under UNCLOS,) you are not supposed to occupy unoccupied features," he said, referring to China's claim.

"How can you have historical claims to continental shelf? A continental shelf is a modern concept," he added.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio also earlier said China's 9-dash line claim violates UNCLOS.

"China's 9-dashed line claim converts the South China Sea into an internal Chinese lake, allowing China to unilaterally appropriate for itself what belongs to other sovereign coastal states, in defiance of UNCLOS," he said.

"China's 9-dashed line claim simply cannot co-exist with UNCLOS –one kills the other," Carpio said. "To uphold China's 9-dashed line claim is to wipe out centuries of progressing the law of the sea."