MANILA - The Philippines needs to pass legislation that will be the legal basis or reference of the country's maritime borders amid its maritime disputes with China over the West Philippine Sea, an expert said Wenesday.
In a virtual forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, professor Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea emphasized the importance of a maritime zone bill as China continues its expansion in the contested waters.
Batongbacal said lawmakers have to make the legislation regarding the Philippines' maritime borders explicitly clear.
"We need to be clear about what we're legislating on and what we mean by legislation because maritime issues have really been rather complex in the Philippines not the least of which is the fact that we are an archipelago but also been cause of this different disputes that we’ve been involved in at this overlapping maritime zones and competing claims. It’s not only competing with China but also other neighbors like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam and even Taiwan," he noted.
"This is necessary because in the international maritime law, particularly in discussions about the law of the sea and discussions about the states, legislation has a much broader meaning, legislation could simply be referring to acts of a state in making issuances whether they are issued by the legislature or even the executive agencies of that state," he explained.
Batongbacal said the West Philippine Sea policy of the next administration in 2022 will be important, regardless of who wins the elections.
Despite the landmark ruling five years ago by an intergovernmental court favoring the Philippines’ maritime claims in the South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte has said that “arbitration” between his Manila and Beijing never occurred as the latter refused to participate in the process.
In May this year, Duterte called the victory in the arbitral tribunal a mere "piece of paper" that he would throw in the waste basket.
“We will not survive another six years of what we’ve seen in the last 5-years ... that’s why if that kind of policy will be taken by the next administration, we will eventually lose control of the area. The answer lies in (next) year's activities," Batongbacal said.
He said future legislation on the country's maritime zones or borders should not be similar to China's controversial 9-dash line.
Beijing lays claim to most of the South China Sea waters within the so-called nine-dash line, a U-shaped feature used on Chinese maps. Parts of the resource-rich waters are also contested by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
“We can be assured that it’s not like China’s 9-dash line. The bill if at all is actually like more localized version of UNCLOS especially when it comes to defining the zones and the rights and duties of foreign vessels and aircraft when they are within those zones. We made it a point to really reflect the provisions of UNCLOS in the legislation so that it's very clear not just to us, but even to other states," Batongbacal said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
"It’s very clear that our intention really is the implementation in accordance with the UNCLOS."
Former Sen. Antonio Trillanes, who's running for another term in the Senate and author of the Philippine Baselines Law, said that even though domestic legislation is unilateral on the part of the Philippines, this will explicitly make clear where the borders of the country lie, particularly the West Philippine Sea, which is an exclusive economic zone.
“It’s more about providing legal standing and authority to our law enforcers, whether its the Coast Guard or the Navy. It's just to clarify the limits, instead of using Presidential Decree 1599 to define the outer limits of our EEZ and that is what the Navy uses in conducting EEZ patrols," he said.
Presidential Decree 1599 by the late President Benigno Aquino III created the EEZ.
"Any domestic legislation is a unilateral action in our coastal state, they may not recognize it, it’s just a unilateral action on the part of the state but it would matter to us in times of dispute and arbitration that we are standing on firm legal grounds," Trillanes said.
He stressed that the Philippines has to fast-track the implementation of its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US.
"I believe that balancing the situation with the strengthening of our alliance with the United States could help deter further aggressive actions, this is of course is based on the assumption that the (Visiting Forces Agreement) will be in full swing," Trillanes said.
"It’s high time that we revive that, then we can also join the freedom of navigation of regions by the allied countries and these areas in the WPS."
He also called for the modernization of the country's military.
"We have to modernize the Navy or the Air Force at least and the ground troops. We need to be prepared, and also these modern ships and equipment can be a deterrence or even enforce like China," said Trillanes.
Batongbacal, meanwhile, noted that support for a maritime border law has grown in Congress.
“At least in both houses of Congress there has been much more interests and support in it than we’ve ever seen before, we hope that … even it’s the maritime zone bill, that’s already a big step because it will have the effects clarifying and putting our own laws and regulations in order so that we can be more effective when dealing with foreign vessels and aircraft," he said.
— With a report from Johnson Manabat, ABS-CBN News