Can We Turn Back From A Maelstrom? Breaking the Impasse over the West Philippines Sea

This is the winning entry (high school category) in the recently concluded essay contest “The West Philippine Sea and Its Impact on the Future of the Philippines” organised by the US Pinoys For Good Governance with presentation of awards to the winners being staged as part of the Second Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora last February 26. / Ed.

By Hentjie Oliver A. Tachado
La Salle College, Antipolo

An ensuing battle looms over the West Philippines Sea. Tensions are high as a Vietnamese controlled seismic ship surveying an area 20 miles from the Paracel Islands were boarded by PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) maritime patrol troops. In response, Socialist Republic of Vietnam scrambled its fighter jets to the area. As the situation escalates, the United States decided to intervene by deploying its ships patrolling the area. Seeing the approaching American 7th fleet, the PLAN fired missiles and torpedoes, damaging most of the ships and killing hundreds of American servicemen. Infuriated by this reckless action, the United States government declared war to the People’s Republic of China, plunging the world into a full-scale global conflict…

Luckily the world hasn’t yet experienced this apocalyptic scenario, at least for now; with stakes as high as the ownership over the West Philippine Sea, anything is possible.

Some of the winners, judges and supporters during awards presentation night. Seating: Dr. Celia B. Lamkin, US Pinoys for Good Governance Marianas chapter chairperson; Dr. Ruth Rico, Department chair of the College of Philosophy and Political Science, University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman; Mrs. Ester L.Manaysay, mother of Ferth Vandesteen Manaysay, 1st prize winner College category; Mrs. Joan Tachado, mother of Hentjie Oliver Tachado, 1st prize winner High School Category; Dela Salle College Representative. Standing from left: Dr. Almira Gilles (judge); Mrs. Estella, mother of Gervie Kay Estella, 2nd prize winner College Category; gervie kay estella; Francois Xavier Bonnet (judge); Atty. Lolita Farmer (judge), Romy Cayabyab (judge); Ferth Vandesteen Manaysay; Hentjie Oliver Tachado and Krytal Amihan de Leon, 3rd prize winner High School Category.
Some of the winners, judges and supporters during awards presentation night. Seating: Dr. Celia B. Lamkin, US Pinoys for Good Governance Marianas chapter chairperson; Dr. Ruth Rico, Department chair of the College of Philosophy and Political Science, University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman; Mrs. Ester L.Manaysay, mother of Ferth Vandesteen Manaysay, 1st prize winner College category; Mrs. Joan Tachado, mother of Hentjie Oliver Tachado, 1st prize winner High School Category; Dela Salle College Representative. Standing from left: Dr. Almira Gilles (judge); Mrs. Estella, mother of Gervie Kay Estella, 2nd prize winner College Category; gervie kay estella; Francois Xavier Bonnet (judge); Atty. Lolita Farmer (judge), Romy Cayabyab (judge); Ferth Vandesteen Manaysay; Hentjie Oliver Tachado and Krytal Amihan de Leon, 3rd prize winner High School Category.

The West Philippine Sea (known internationally as the South China Sea) has been a hotbed of near-war conflicts and diplomatic protests for the past several decades. Analysts around the world have long speculated that this vast 3,500,000 km body of water could become a catalyst for global conflict. At this time, this idea seems far-fetched as representatives of the parties concerned are working around the clock to avert this cataclysmic event. But as disputants have increasingly become more assertive and belligerent, this idea may soon turn to reality.

But what is really at stake in this “tug-of-war” between claimant countries?

To begin with, the West Philippines Sea holds a lot of oil and gas reserves. Currently the proven oil reserve in the region stands at least the tenth of the 297 billion-barrels Venezuelan oil reserves. On the other hand, the proven gas reserves is estimated to be at 266 trillion cubic feet, five times the proven natural gas reserves of the world’s leading gas producer Russia. Also, nearly a third of the world’s fishing outputs are produced from this region.

These resources are enough to drive six claimant countries namely the People’s Republic of China, Republic of China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines into a very convoluted dispute over the contested waters. To emphasize these claims to the region, these countries presented old maps (or in some cases forged maps) and treaties to invigorate the latter. Most of the claims are plausible because they are in accordance with international law. The Republic of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei’s claims in the West Philippines Sea were all based in the United Nations Convention in the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The UNCLOS is a maritime treaty demarcating a country’s maritime limit as well as compelling it to a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The treaty was ratified by 163 nations thus gaining recognition from the international community. Some of the claims, however are obviously unrealistic and absurdly exaggerated like the so-called 9-dash line. The Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China have made claims in the West Philippine Sea based on the 9-dash line (formerly 11 dash line), a U-shaped maritime border encompassing all most all of the West Philippines Sea. It was allegedly drafted by a fictitious person named Hu Jinsui in 1914. Up until now, both governments couldn’t present any evidence validating this claim; let alone the existence of the person who authored it. Nevertheless, they used is as a capricious reason to occupy and construct structures on features within the Philippines EEZ.

It is far too late for our government to take up any action to assume control of all the territories within our 200-mile EEZ. It is also seriously doubted if diplomatic protests and international arbitrations against foreign occupation in some islands like the Kagitingan Reef would work at all. But nevertheless, as a signatory of the UNCLOS, the Republic of the Philippines, by all means, have unequivocal rights to exploit all natural resources found in its exclusive economic zone. It’s unclear why our government should hesitate in conducting oil and gas explorations in our EEZ when clearly, our rights to exploit these resources are recognized by the international community.

But what are the stakes here for the future generation? Wouldn’t it be better to just tolerate foreign countries to exploit resources near our territorial baselines to avoid a shooting war? Wouldn’t it be better to just renounce the country’s claims in the West Philippines Sea to get over with bullying maneuvers like travel bans, forced loan repayments or trade embargos disguised as import quarantines?

Control of the areas within our 200-mile EEZ is not only crucial for the country’s impetus to achieve unparallel economic growth and development but also for asserting our territorial integrity. The stakes for asserting control in our own EEZ are just too high considering the fact that it contains vast reserves of oil and gas-resources that we need drastically but are in short supply. The demand for domestic oil consumption in the country is said to increase to 339,000 barrels by 2016. Dwindling oil reserves globally as well as increasing demand for “black gold” may led to the increase of oil prices in the global market leading to higher logistical costs and higher inflation.

Should we tell our grandchildren that we abandoned an abundant source of fossil fuels when they are reeling on price hikes and shortages caused by our mistake? Acquisition of the oil and gas reserves would make the country self-sufficient in the consumption and production of these resources. Utilizing these reserves will mean lower exports for fossil fuels in the country and slowly eradicate its need to import oil and natural gas to oil producing and exporting countries (OPECs). Three of the exploration areas along the West Philippine Sea alone is estimated to hold as much as 750 million barrels of oil with a total economic value of 12 billion dollars- enough to satisfy the country’s crude oil demand for the next seven years. The Recto Bank, one of the features claimed by the Philippines, is also estimated to contain as much as 3.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas- enough to cover the country’s gas requirements for several years. There are also more untapped oil and gas reserves within the 200-mile limit EEZ adjacent to Philippine territory just waiting to be explored and exploited.

Abundant fishing grounds in the Scarborough shoal and the Kalayaan Group of Islands are also essential for the continuing development of our mariculture industry. With the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) ban on fishing tuna in waters adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, it is critical for the government to safeguard fishing grounds within the country’s EEZ for commercial and small-scale fishing of Filipinos to replenish the fishing stocks and provide income and livelihood to the Filipinos displaced by the ban.

The most affected by this issue is the Filipino youth because in the end, it will be their loss.

We may not have the capability to file diplomatic protests nor physically interdict foreign vessels plying our coasts but nonetheless, we can do our part in safeguarding our country’s interests within the West Philippines Sea even in small ways. Not in unproductive and often provocative approaches such as marching to the Chinese embassy carrying pickets with words “Down with China”, waging large-scale protests or calling for boycott of Chinese-made products. Instead, the youth can contribute to the nation’s cause through achievable approaches that produce tangible results. For instance, the youth can aid organizations who are mandated to protect the country’s interest in Spratly Islands-the Philippine Coast Guard. It can address the sheer lack of proper equipment needed by these organizations to fulfill their roles in safeguarding the nation’s interest in the region.

The Department of Education may also impose an initiative through an executive order requiring each one of the 23 million students in the Philippines to contribute at least 10 pesos a month. Using the collections from this initiative, the government can procure 16 units of 87-foot patrol boats capable of withstanding heavy weather conditions or build 12 coastal watch stations; one for each feature occupied by the Philippines in the West Philippines Sea to detect any illegal activities of both foreign and domestic entities intruding the area. These were assets badly needed by our Coast Guard to perform their mandate and at the same time, a student would be given an opportunity to express its support to the country.

Another significant step that could be taken by the youth is initiating a multilateral dialogue covering the issues in the region. Imagine representatives of different youth organizations and selected students from different educational institutions from claimant countries band together to form a body that will force their respective governments to the negotiating table.

In the end, our youth could be an instrument in fostering the Philippines’ interests in the West Philippines Sea and resolve this issue through peaceful and relatively positive approaches.

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