RATHER than throwing racist diatribes at China and engaging in endless eristic blah-blahs on who owns what in the South China Sea region, we should do what all claimants in the Spratlys have done or have been doing in the past two decades.
Instead of filing useless suits in international bodies, which have no force anyway, and begging the world to help us enforce the law of the sea as President Aquino 3rd did, let’s do what China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have been doing since the 1980s: Secure whatever we now occupy. “Build, build, build” on our properties in the disputed area.
The principle in international territorial disputes is a version of the legal principle “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” And possession is enhanced and strengthened if Claimant A that occupies a particular island or reef, in the case of the South China Sea, builds facilities there that it would require so much violence by claimant B to eject Claimant A that the world community would likely intervene.
This is what President Marcos in fact did when he grabbed the Kalayaan group of islands in the Spratly archipelago in 1974 and decreed it to be a municipality of Palawan. He renamed the biggest island Pag-asa, stationed a fully-armed army and marine detachment, and built an airstrip—the first such to be constructed in the Spratlys—that could be used even by C-130 transport planes.
All administrations after Marcos did nothing else, so that the airstrip has been eroded by the sea that it has become hazardous even for small planes to use.
In the past two decades though, other claimants aped what Marcos did.
Structures that Vietnam built on its islands and islets.
While the US and the Aquino regime whipped up a frenzy against China’s fortifications on its claimed reefs, Vietnam, starting in the 1980s had also built structures on all of the 21 islands and reefs that it controlled, or occupied.
Pugad (Southwest Cay) was a barren islet when the South Vietnamese grabbed it from us in 1975, after tricking our Marines into leaving the island for an overnight party in a nearby island. Now it is a garrison with over a dozen buildings and barracks (see image).
In 2000, Vietnam built an airstrip on its biggest island Truong Sa (in the Spratlys group) and doubled its size in 2016 so it could be used by its largest warplanes. Reuters in 2016 reported that Vietnam had discreetly fortified several of its islands in the disputed South China Sea with mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China’s runways and military installations.
Pag-asa island with its airport built by Marcos in 1974 (left). Our other “structure” (right), a rusty ship grounded on Ayungin Shoal.
Vietnam shames us. A nation ravaged by war, it is much poorer than us, with a GDP per capita of only $2,200 compared to our $3,000. Yet it spent billions of dollars to build up its sovereignty in the Spratly islands. The Aquino 3rd government spent nothing to secure Pag-asa Island, yet dispensed P220 billion as pork barrel funds, including the P10 billion that was used to bribe the Senate to boot out one of the best Chief Justices we ever had.
Check out what Malaysia did. It sent in 1983 its special forces to just grab Swallow Reef which Vietnam and China claimed, asserting unilaterally that it was part of its continental shelf.
Renaming it Layang-Layang, Malaysia built an airport there with two hangars, a radar station, an air traffic control tower, watchtowers, a jetty, and a marine research facility. Just in the past few years, it built there a five-star resort, which has been gaining a reputation as a top-of-the-line scuba diving destination. Layang-Layang’s official website gives no hint at all that it is in the disputed Spratlys.
Left, Taiping island (Itu Aba) in the Spratlys, controlled by Taiwan. Right, recreational diving map of Malaysia’s Pulau Layang Layang (Swallow Reef).
The largest island in the Spratlys, Itu Taba (or Taiping Island) is occupied by an entity most countries in the world do not recognize as a sovereign nation: Taiwan. Although it had a marine detachment stationed there starting in1956, Taiwan went on a build, build, build spree only in 2000.
It now has an airport there, capable of accommodating military planes, a port that could berth navy destroyers, and four-story bunkers. Yet the arbitral court ruling that largely favored the Philippine suit, claimed that Taiping island was just a “rock.”
Mainly because China and Vietnam in the early 1970s ware too economically and military weak, the other claimants – including us—managed to occupy the “choice” properties in the Spratlys, that is, the islands and islets.
By the time China became a military power, the choice properties had been taken, and it could occupy only seven reefs, which other claimants including us had ignored or decided too expensive to build structures on.
By comparison, we control six islands and islets (Pag-asa being the largest), and two reefs. Vietnam is actually the biggest “landowner” in the Spratlys with 21 islands, islets and reefs. It has managed to transform several of its reefs into artificial islands.
Let’s be objective: If you just had seven features in the Spratlys, all reefs, and you had the necessary funds, wouldn’t you transform those into artificial islands – as China did?
We had choice properties, but failed to develop them. The Aquino regime spent P500 million – P300 million in fees paid to an American law firm – for its arbitration award against China, which hasn’t been and cannot be enforced. The better use of that P500 million would have been to repair and extend our airstrip in Pag-asa and build structures on all our islets and reefs in the Spratlys.
I propose that we take these two major steps:
1. Congress should immediately allocate P10 billion to build structures – buildings, lighthouses, piers, marine-life stations, even dive resorts in our South China Sea properties. The Estrada government grounded a rusty, World War 2 vintage ship in Ayungin Shoal to serve as our outpost there. That is a national shame. If the Senate intends to spend P10 billion just for a new swanky building, I’m sure Congress can allocate that much to assert our sovereignty in the area of the South China Sea that we have boldly renamed as the West Philippine Sea. That P10 billion though would certainly not be enough, compared to what China, Vietnam Malaysia and Taiwan have spent to secure their properties in the South China Sea.
2. Congress must enact a law that would make the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) a Special Administrative Region directly under the President, with the necessary annual budgets necessary to build structures there and oversee its development, on the same level as the Clark Freeport and Special Economic Zone and the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. The Republic would be slowed down in developing the KIG if it remains in its status now as a mere municipality of Palawan province.
The past four regimes’ total mismanagement of our properties in the South China Sea is an embarrassment before the world. The Aquino regime merely did what the US wanted, which was to embarrass China in a world forum. Duterte must change all this. His “build, build, build” program must extend to our properties in the Spratlys.