Scarborough Shoal

MANILA, Philippines - As of this time of writing, all the eight Chinese fishing boats have left Scarborough Shoal. Only a Chinese maritime survey ship and a Philippine Coast Guard vessel had remained in the area while the two countries are engaged in finding a peaceful solution to their territorial dispute. The continuing pursuit of their unilateral interests could threaten peace in the region. On the other hand, the option to cooperate in establishing a joint maritime zone for the purpose of resource management and environmental protection is perceived by many as the most desirable solution.

An argument for this alternative is that Scarborough Reef (or shoal) does not qualify as a fully- fledged island and therefore will not be able to generate its own exclusive economic zone or EEZ and/or continental shelf. Under the Law of the Sea Convention, the two countries may, however, declare an area of 12 or even 24 nautical miles in breadth around the Reef as a joint maritime zone.

Zou Keyuan, professor of international law at the University of Lancashire, UK, and research fellow at the National University of Singapore, in his background analysis, Scarborough Reef - a new flashpoint in Sino-Philippine Relations? (1999) described the Reef (referred to as "Huangyan Island" in Chinese) as the biggest atoll in the South China Seas. Although regarded as part of the Zhongsha Islands since 1935, Chinese scholars had neglected to mention it in the traditionally acknowledged group of islands. The bilateral dispute surfaced in 1997 when Filipino naval vessels prevented three Chinese boats from approaching the reef. China then lodged a strong protest.

Several foreign scholars have challenged the inclusion of the Scarborough Reef in the Zhongsha Islands as being "geographically questionable and incorrect despite China's claim. The Philippine claim is based on Article 1 of the 1987 Constitution that states that the "national territory comprises the Philippine archipelago with all the islands, and waters embraced therein, and all the other territories over which the Philippines has sovereignty and jurisdiction" - which includes the Scarborough Shoal. Too, the disputed horseshoe-shaped area is proximate to the country as it lies some 230 kilometers from Zambales province.

The claim - that it is a part of Spratly Islands was made as early as the 1970's when our government occupied seven islands and designated them as the Kalayaan (Freedom) Islands. Scarborough Reef is north of the Spratlys and lies 348 kilometers beyond the Kalayaan area. Since the 1970's, Filipino fishermen have been fishing around the area which has also been used in oceanographic, reef structure, and other maritime scientific studies conducted by the University of the Philippines and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It has a lighthouse and it is also used as impact range by defense authorities. Philippine laws on smuggling and illegal fishing have been enforced in the area. Over the past decade or so, China began sailing into the reef to collect shells, sea cucumber, and rare marine species. Approximately 300 ships pass through the vicinity daily. Japan uses the route in transporting petroleum from the Middle East.

Issues that had given rise to the current tension may be addressed during the negotiation, and perhaps, mediation by UN and ASEAN. These include clarifying UNCLOS (UN Law of the Sea) principles and definitions (including ambiguities such as the exact meaning of "rock," "human habitation," and "economic life") and obtaining multilateral support from ASEAN (turning the Shoal into an area of cooperation) through the establishment of a maritime zone for the purpose of resource management. Likewise, it could provide a useful prototype in resolving the territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands, which to date, has been the subject of a claim by six countries - the Peoples Republic of China, Republic of China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines. My e-mail is florangel.braid@gmail.com

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