Experts: Time to put muscle into protecting maritime zones

Benise Balaoing, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 07 2021 01:52 PM

Image of Pag-Asa Island, located in the Spratly Islands. The Philippines first took possession of the feature in 1974. Photo by CSIS/AMTI/Digital Globe
Image of Pag-Asa Island, located in the Spratly Islands. The Philippines first took possession of the feature in 1974. Photo by CSIS/AMTI/Digital Globe

MANILA – Experts backed Tuesday the passage of the Philippine Maritime Zones Act but said more needs to be done to boost the country’s defense of its maritime zones.

The House of Representatives on December 6 passed on third and final reading a bill that establishes the legal basis by which social, economic, commercial, and other activities may be conducted in the Philippines’ maritime zones. 

The passage of the bill in the lower chamber comes amid tensions between the Philippines and China over the West Philippine Sea.

Maritime affairs expert Jay Batongbacal said the bill is necessary because current Philippine maritime laws are outdated.

“In terms of implementation, we do have a problem because our laws are rather old when it comes to the maritime zones,” he said. “We had a baselines law, which was enacted in 2009, that only provided the starting point.”

“You still have to measure all of the maritime zones in accordance with (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and our existing laws. Some of them are not in conformity with UNCLOS so this bill really is necessary.”

Batongbacal said the bill, if passed into law, will "clarify to the world that we are claiming [maritime zones] in accordance with UNCLOS, particularly, the zones being, well reaching up to 12 nautical miles territorial sea, 200 nautical miles with the EEZ continental shelf, and also declaring contiguous zone."

“It also establishes very clearly in the law what are the permissible and impermissible actions the vessels may take while traversing these maritime zones."

"That is very important especially for our law enforcers, and the navy, coast guard, maritime police because before, there would always be questions as to whether or not something can or cannot be done in a particular area of the Philippines in seas because of the inconsistencies between the old law and international law. So this will now clarify that as well,” he said.

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International studies professor Renato de Castro, however, said the country also needs to beef up its navy and coast guard so the maritime zones law can be implemented properly. 

“The enforcement is another matter. Professor Batongbacal talked about the navy, the Coast Guard, other law enforcement agencies. So you need to back up that law of course with capabilities,” he said.

“[The] law by itself when you talk about international relations is simply a piece of paper unless you back it of course with the naval capability and law enforcement capabilities,” the professor stressed.

“So I basically agree that we have to pass this law but at the same time we also have develop our naval and law enforcement capabilities. Because in the end if we pass that law without those necessary requirements it will just be, as mentioned no less by President Duterte about the arbitral ruling, it will just be a piece of paper.”

“We have to put, you know, the money where our mouth is. That’s basically what is necessary,” De Castro said.

“And especially, this will be a very important task for the next administration: to adapt a policy that would of course put muscle into the law, this maritime law we’re passing right now. So that’s a key challenge. So that also would entail restructuring our defense capabilities, Focusing of course (on) our maritime domain.”

Batongbacal said that aside from beefing up the country’s naval muscle, the Philippine government must also continue advocating for the rule of law in international waters.

“We of course will always rely on international law because it is through international law that power can be equalized. And that’s why we must always dedicate ourselves to creating an international community which works under the rule of law instead of the rule of the jungle,” he said.

He also said the Philippines must also form alliances with other countries dedicated to upholding the rule of law.

“Since we are a small country and we’ll never be able to match the power of a country that’s 10 times our size in terms of economy and population, what we need to do is to cultivate alliances and friendships with other countries who also are invested in an international community that works by the rule of law.”

“So that includes ASEAN members as well as external countries like Japan who hold the law very highly and who believe that even states must work in accordance with international law,” he said.

--ANC, 7 December 2021

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