A Brief Explainer on the West Philippine Sea
For many years before 2012, Filipinos referred to their portion of the sea bordering the west of the country as South China Sea. Then, after the tense Scarborough Shoal Standoff in 2012, the government decided to name the maritime area as the West Philippine Sea.
For many decades prior to the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff, the disputes in this part of the world remained dormant. It only escalated in 2012 after China sent paramilitary ships to Scarborough and blocked its perimeter to keep Filipino vessels and fishing boats away from the area.
In response, and because of its significantly weaker military capabilities, the Philippines resorted to international law—the great equalizer of nations. In 2013, it filed a case against China at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) concerning maritime questions in the West Philippine Sea.
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Surprisingly, a lot of countries supported the Philippines in its case against China. The U.S. and its allies in the European Union such as Germany, France, and the U.K. expressed their support for the decision to take the matter to court. Likewise, Vietnam, Japan, and Australia supported the move, emphasizing that the rule of law should prevail over acts of war in resolving disputes.
Finally, in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration handed out a landmark victory for the Philippines and declared China’s nine-dash lines and historical claims on the entire South China Sea illegal. It also declared key features in the West Philippine Sea as falling within the Philippines’ maritime zone.
What is the West Philippine Sea?
The West Philippine Sea is the part of the sea on the west side of the Philippines in which maritime rights of the country extends. It has different maritime zones, each with special maritime rights exclusive to the Philippines.
Most people think that the farthest border in the West Philippine Sea is the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) which stretches 200 nautical miles from the baseline. However, beyond the EEZ is the Philippines’ extended continental shelf (ECS). Only the adjacent archipelagic state like the Philippines can exploit and use resources under the ECS and on its seabed.
What are the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea?
The West Philippine Sea has always been a potential flashpoint because it is claimed in part by Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and in whole by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
From 2013 to 2015, China successfully reclaimed and militarized seven reefs in the South China Sea, five of which are in the West Philippine Sea. The five are Mabini Reef, McKennan Reef, Calderon Reef, Kagitingan Reef, and Burgos Reef.
How do we know that the West Philippine Sea belongs to the Philippines?
Aside from 17th-century maps, international treaties, and even Chinese records, we know that the West Philippine Sea belongs to the Philippines because international law says so, even before the landmark victory of Filipinos in the Philippines versus China case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016.
In 2009, in accordance with the rules and deadlines set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Philippines amended its baselines law, which defines the boundaries of the country’s territory.
The late Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who was an expert on maritime and international law, kept her colleagues up to task on this matter, even reprimanding them when they proposed that we include the entire Spratly Islands in our baselines. “The unacceptable choice is to claim as much territory as we want, alienate the rest of the international community, and operate as a pariah in international law," she said.
Such was the foresight of the late senator that when the Permanent Court of Arbitration decided in 2016, it considered the merits of the baselines law that the Philippines defined in 2009, and found it perfect. Because of that, we gained for ourselves an ironclad defense that says we own all the islands that China is occupying in the West Philippine Sea.
Majority of the countries of the world, especially members of the U.N., recognize the Court’s decision. It also means that they recognize the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea. Their support ensured very important protection and leverage for the Philippines against China, who is historically hesitant to take drastic action if it risks losing international prestige. Acting against the opinion of a majority of U.N members is risking losing international prestige and influence.