MANILA, Philippines - Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario on Monday explained to grade school and high school students crucial issues regarding the Philippines' territorial row with China.
Del Rosario, who was invited by students and faculty of De La Salle Santiago Zobel School in Alabang, Muntinlupa City, also lectured on the political, diplomatic and legal track taken by the country to protect and defend the territory that rightly belongs to the Philippines and for a peaceful settlement of the dispute.
Del Rosario said in addition to Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, a portion of Philippine territory includes part of the seas which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has given the country to exercise certain rights, like the right to fish and the right to explore for oil and natural gas.
The UNCLOS is an agreement among countries on how to use the oceans peacefully through rightful division.
In explaining which parts of the seas belong to the Philippines and what rights the country has over them, Del Rosario presented an illustration showing the “baselines.”
He told the students that baselines is an abstract term that he likened to the walls of a house. The baselines connect the outermost islands of the Philippine archipelago. Inside the baselines or the “walls” of the Philippines are the islands and the waters over which the country has complete sovereignty and control.
He said that outside these baselines, the country’s maritime zones are determined.
“The EEZ (exclusive economic zone) is like the yard around the house. It means that everything inside the yard is ours. Under UNCLOS, other countries must seek our permission if they intend to fish in the area,” Del Rosario said. “Other countries have EEZs like we do. Particularly, for our neighboring countries, there are intersections of the EEZs which give rise to disputes. These disputes will have to be negotiated and usually these countries divide the area in the middle.”
Del Rosario said, however, that there is one important difference between a house and a country like the Philippines.
“In the house, you cannot just let anybody pass through your backyard, right? But for countries, you have to let ships of other countries pass through your maritime zones. This is because the seas and oceans are important for trade and commerce. So, we have to let ships go through. This is called freedom of navigation,” he said.
He emphasized that the West Philippine Sea is important to all nations because over 50,000 ships pass through the area, bringing in oil and goods, and transporting people. This represents between 40 and 60 percent of world trade traversing these waters.
He also explained that the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) or the Spratlys is a group of islands, rocks, and reefs.
He said the Philippines is not claiming the entire group of islands but only 53 islands, rocks, and reefs within the area.
The KIG is about 170 nautical miles from Palawan, more than 300 nautical miles from Vietnam and around 560 nautical miles from China. The Philippines has governed the area since the 1960s.
The KIG is a municipality under Palawan with a mayor elected by resident Filipinos.
He said the Recto Bank or Reed Bank, located north of the Kalayaan Island Group, is an integral part of the Philippines which is located 84 nautical miles from Palawan and 600 nautical miles from the nearest Chinese coastline.
According to Del Rosario, the Recto Bank is rich in hydrocarbons and is believed to be second to the Persian Gulf in oil reserves and fifth behind Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran in natural gas reserves.
The Philippines’ top diplomat said the “Recto Bank has become extremely important for the Chinese because of the presence of natural gas.”
He also cited Bajo de Masinloc (also called Panatag or Scarborough Shoal), 124 nautical miles from Zambales and nearly 500 nautical miles from the nearest coast of China, that is part of Masinloc municipality in Zambales.
“The Bajo de Masinloc is ours and we have exercised effective jurisdiction over it,” he said.
A Philippine flag has been erected in the shoal. In the 1960s, the Philippines even built and operated a lighthouse there. The area was also used as a target range by naval and air forces of the Philippines and the United States.
China has been saying that all of the West Philippine Sea is theirs based on what is called the “nine-dash line.”
However, China’s claim is not supported by international law and is therefore baseless.
Other countries, on the other hand, are saying that China’s claim is just too much.
“We obviously do not agree with China and we are not prepared to let them take Recto Bank and Bajo de Masinloc away from us,” Del Rosario said.
In 2011, China sent huge government ships and aircraft to Recto Bank and shooed away the Philippines’ smaller survey ship.
China also sent warships in the area near Recto Bank and drove away Filipino fishermen.
In April 2012, the Philippines was prevented from enforcing its laws and China was demanding that the Philippines exit from its own EEZ.
Chinese government ships prevented Philippine authorities from apprehending Chinese fishermen who were caught harvesting endangered species like giant clams and corals.
But Del Rosario said the Philippines is committed to undertake all that is possible to cultivate positive relations with China in spite of the maritime dispute.
He said the government is addressing the challenge of protecting its territory from countries that claim what rightfully belongs to the Philippines by advocating a rules-based approach.
The rules-based approach, he said, includes solving the issue peacefully without threat or use of force; applying international law, specifically UNCLOS, abiding by the ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and discussing with various claimants in order to take into account their interests.