Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio deserves a huge deal of credit, and the gratitude of all Filipinos, for boosting the Philippines’ claim to Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands in South China Sea. But he was being doctrinaire when he said that we should all stop describing that portion of South China Sea that we call West Philippine Sea as “disputed.”
A dispute over the resource-rich islands, rocks and reefs scattered over the South China Sea beyond legal avenues remains, notwithstanding the landmark ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that favored Manila over Beiijing in 2016. The United Nations-backed arbiters of The Hague declared most of the Spratlys, and Scarborough, to be part of the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, where Manila can exercise “sovereign rights” and exploit natural resources. China however refuses to even recognize their jurisdiction. It’s like a contest in which the judges’ decision is under protest, and their decision is in reality not final — China has several means, including military force, against its neighbors and competing powers like the United States, to end the dispute over the crucial passageway and trade route once and for all.
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The writer Tim Marshall, in Prisoners of Geography, argues that Beijing “intends to change its neighbors’ ways of thinking and to change America’s way of thinking and behaving — pushing and pushing an agenda until its competitors back off.” At stake, he says, “is the concept of international waters and free passage in peacetime; it is not something that will be easily given up by the other powers.”
But Justice Carpio is right about the power of words in reinforcing the Philippine claim and projecting to China and the rest of the world how serious Filipinos are about their entitlements to the area.
Everyone knows that group of islands and features in the South China Sea, subject of rival territorial claims by neighboring countries, to be the Spratly Islands. Yet Beijing insists on calling them the Nansha Qundao, or Nansha Islands. We should do the same and call them Kalayaan Islands.
It doesn’t help the Philippine cause a bit when government officials and the news media prefer to use the international names of these islands and features. What are these names, anyway, but colonial vestiges? Spratly Island, and the Spratly island group, take after a British navigator, Richard Spratly. Scarborough Shoal (not part of the Spratlys) was named by Western mapmakers after a British East India Company ship that ran aground in 1748. We should call them Lagos Island, Kalayaan Island Group, and Panatag Shoal, respectively.
Justice Carpio is right about the power of words in reinforcing the Philippine claim and projecting to China and the rest of the world how serious Filipinos are about their entitlements to the area.
Scarborough, in fact, had a Tagalog name more than a decade prior to the 1748 sea mishap, perhaps much earlier. The Murillo Velarde map, the “mother of Philippine maps” published in 1734 by the Jesuit Pedro Murillo Velarde, called it “Panacot” and included it in Philippine territory. Carpio argues that there is no such map for China or Vietnam. Today it is also known as Bajo de Masinloc, after the fishing town in Zambales.
The case of the Kalayaan Islands (Spratlys) is different. Abandoned by France and China, it became terra nullius or no man’s land after World War 2. Imperial China never considered the southern waters beyond Hainan province to be part of its territory. If there were any historic claims, they were, in theory, extinguished when Beijing ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1996, the basis of the 2016 ruling. Beijing’s claim to historic ownership has been officially debunked, thanks to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Republican China declared ownership only as far as the Paracels, which Beijing now disputes with Hanoi. China became aggressive only after World War 2 with the publication in 1948 of the infamous nine-dash-line map that claimed more than 80 percent of South China Sea. At that time, most of the islands and rocks did not even have Chinese names; Beijing scrambled to transliterate, thus Lord Auckland Shoal became Ao ke lan sha, Mischief Reef became Mi-qi fu, Gaven Reef Ge wen, and so on.
That rush job was a job that mattered. The scholar Hui-yi Katherine Tseng, writing about the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands dispute between China and Japan, explains that the naming of terra nullius was a “sovereign inference” recognized by international law. Giving a name to a place is an act of administration, and makes it part of the country’s governance structure.
President Elpidio Quirino called it the “New Southern Islands” in 1946. Ten years later, the fearless adventurer and maritime school owner, Tomas Cloma, claimed the islands and called it “Freedomland.” The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who jailed Cloma, secured the rights to the group of islands for one peso. Marcos called it Kalayaan (“Freedom”) and issued a decree that formally annexed it to Philippine territory in 1978.
President Elpidio Quirino called it the “New Southern Islands” in 1946. Ten years later, the fearless adventurer and maritime school owner, Tomas Cloma, claimed the islands and called it “Freedomland.”
Having stationed soldiers there after a secret operation in the early 1970s, Marcos took things a step farther and created the Municipality of Kalayaan under Palawan province. It has a complete set of local government officials, albeit with a population of only a couple hundred military personnel and dependents. There were actually two candidates for mayor in Kalayaan in the May 2019 polls; Roberto del Mundo, an independent who sought re-election, defeated Rodrigo Jaca, 147 to 86. Kalayaan might be a legal artifice for some, but at least they have real elections there, something that cannot be said of other towns in the Philippines.
We should at least consistently use the Filipino official names for the nine islands and reefs occupied by the Philippines — Pag-asa Island instead of Thitu, Rizal Reef instead of Commodore Reef, Patag Island instead of Flat Island, Melchora Aquino Cay instead of Loaita Cay, Kota Island instead of Loaita Island, Lawak Island instead of Nanshan Island, Parola Island instead of Northeast Cay, Ayungin Shoal instead of Second Thomas Shoal, and Likas Island instead of West York Island. We should also insist on Filipino names for islands grabbed from us by China — Panatag instead of Scarborough, Panganiban Reef instead of Mischief Reef, and call the body of water within our maritime boundaries West Philippine Sea instead of South China Sea — as an act of defiance.
We should not apologize for using our own names, e.g., putting them in parentheses after their international names. China’s officialdom sure doesn’t, and they don’t care if we’re confused. We have the stronger claim so it should be the reverse: use the Filipino official names first, then reference the international names, if at all needed, parenthetically, in footnotes even. It’s the patriotic thing to do.