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The Philippines and Spratly Islands: A Losing Battle

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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by Britanny Cheng

What has more than 750 reefs and islands, has been claimed by 5 different countries, and has been the center of political disputes since the 1900s? Answer: the Spratly Islands, located off the coast of the Philippines and Malaysia. This region has been claimed by both of these nations as well as China, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan. Despite the political dilemma synonymous with them, the general American public is mostly unaware that these islands exist.

Territorial Map of Spratly Islands. As countries scramble to occupy and construct in as many islands as they can, the marine ecosystem slowly suffers from the constant warfare and development. Photo by US Department of State, Office of the Geographer & General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans.

Territorial Map of Spratly Islands. As countries scramble to occupy and construct in as many islands as they can, the marine ecosystem slowly suffers from the constant warfare and development. Photo by US Department of State, Office of the Geographer & General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans.

What can the Spratly Islands have to offer? Combined, they barely have 4 square kilometers of land spread out in over 450,000 square kilometers of sea. This makes the construction of infrastructure almost impossible, making the islands uninhabitable. Yet countries around the Pacific have been constantly claiming islands, disputing their opponents’ claims, and using military intimidation for the past 20 years. This is due to the islands’ rich marine ecosystem, gas and oil deposits, and ideal location for military strategies. Fortunately, there has been no drastic large-scale military clash between these five countries as of yet. However, there have been smaller incidents where two countries have clashed and used military force to assert their possession over specific islands. For example, the 1988 altercation at Johnson Reef between the Chinese Navy and Vietnamese Navy (Torode 2013) resulted in the deaths of 64 Vietnamese soldiers that sparked protests in Hanoi as well as in Vietnamese communities in the United States.

In 2002, China and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that aimed “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned” (ASEAN 2002). This has created a tense stalemate that can change at any time. Tensions increased when the Sulu Sultanate from the Philippines attacked North Borneo in early March 2013. North Borneo is part of Sabah, a member state of Malaysia that has claimed the Spratly Islands.

There are several historical, political and economic reasons behind these countries’ territorial claims over the Spratly Islands. Ideally, the Spratly Islands should go to the country that is most equipped and most qualified to sustainably develop the islands’ resources and protect their diverse marine ecosystems; however, that is no small feat and none of the five countries involved in this territorial dispute are known for their green technology. Some have called for military intervention by the United States. Smaller countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have been fighting China’s military intimidation for the past 20 years (Lohman 2009). China’s historical claim to the islands is weak; however, its strong military intimidation has kept it a key player in the Spratly Islands dispute.

Some argue that the Philippines should take sovereignty over Spratly Islands because it has had the most success and experience with maintaining marine ecosystems, plus the islands are well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Philippines has almost 10% of the world’s marine protected areas (MPAs), which were created in response to the country’s rampant cyanide and dynamite fishing in the 1970s and 1980s (Yan 2012). No one can pass through, fish or dive in MPAs except to conduct scientific research. With more than 500 MPA sites within Philippine waters, the government as well as the military is highly experienced in dealing with marine ecosystems and management. Furthermore, the MPAs have shown signs of great success in conservation.

However, the Philippines is not a perfect country. Despite its success, there are still lingering problems within Philippine politics that should be solved in order to effectively address the dispute over the Spartly Islands. The 1951 United States-Philippine Mutual Peace Treaty implies a role for the United States in addressing this territorial dispute and supporting the Philippines, but so far the United States has remained fairly aloof. Yet the Philippines is the strongest ally of the United States among all the countries vying for the islands. It would be advantageous for the United States to support the Philippines’ claim over the Spratly Islands because the United States can benefit from the resources from the rich ecosystem and the strategic location of the islands. Unfortunately, the United States has refused to take sides on the matter. The United States Department of State released a press statement stating that they are closely monitoring the issue but will not take a position on the matter (Ventrell 2012). This almost ignores the Philippines involvement in the dispute and shows that despite the Philippines’ history of cooperation with the United States, they are doing nothing to support their strongest Southeast Asian allies.

Without United States support, the Philippines is reluctant to make aggressive claims over the Spratly Islands in fear of military retaliation from China.  Sadly, the situation is not getting any better as the United States has been showing reluctance in helping the Philippines in environmental matters. Instead of advocating for more United States support, the Philippines has kept relatively subdued about the issue. A controversial journalist from the Manila Bulletin writes, “The Philippines is a weak republic that, like a church mouse, occasionally roars like a lion, and settles down like a lapdog” (Villanueva 2013).

USS Guardian right over Tubbataha Reef will be dismantled and lifted of the reef in the coming months. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anderson Bomjardim of the US Navy.

USS Guardian right over Tubbataha Reef will be dismantled and lifted of the reef in the coming months. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anderson Bomjardim of the US Navy.

Many Filipino politicians, including Villanueva, have pointed out the lack of United States reciprocity with the Philippines. An example of this is the recent crashing of a United States warship on one of the Philippine’s most treasured coral reefs. Tubbataha Reef is an MPA as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (UNESCO 1993). The USS Guardian, a minesweeper, ran off course and crashed into the site, causing more than 4000 square meters of damage (Lendon 2013). The Philippine government decided to forego fining the United States Navy and simply asked for $100,000 in compensation.

This is not just an environmental issue, but also a political issue in which the “United States disregards Filipino sensitivity and treats Philippine sovereignty with impunity” (Villanueva 2013). The reef is an MPA and is protected by an international treaty that prohibits the entry of armed ships into Philippines waters, so why did the USS Guardian crash into the reef despite warnings from park officials? If this is a shining example of the Philippines control over their marine ecosystems as well as their handling of United States cooperation then something is amiss.

If the Philippines hopes to gain control over the Spratly Islands, they are likely going to need the firm public support of the United States. Ideally, the United States would act as a mediator between its strongest Southeast Asian ally and its rival, China. The United States should proactively organize talks between all the countries claiming the islands and urge for a peaceful resolution to the dispute, as military intervention will cause more damage to the reefs surrounding the islands. However, the Philippines should not stand for subjugation from the United States, but rather implore the United States to recognize the Philippines as an important ally and reciprocate with adequate support for the Philippines claims.

Works Cited:

  1. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (2002) Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Retrieved from http://www.asean.org/asean/external-relations/china/item/declaration-on-the-conduct-of-parties-in-the-south-china-sea
  2. Lendon, Brad (2013) US Navy warship will have to be lifted off Philippine reef from CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/25/world/asia/us-navy-ship-aground
  3. Lohman, Walter (2009) Spratly Islands: The Challenge to U.S. Leadership in the South China Sea from The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/02/spratly-islands-the-challenge-to-us-leadership-in-the-south-china-sea
  4. Torode, Greg (2013) Spratly Islands dispute degines China-Vietnam relations 25 years after naval crash from South China Morning Post. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1192472/spratly-islands-dispute-defines-china-vietnam-relations-25-years-after
  5. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (1993) Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park from UNESCO’s official website. Retrieved from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/653
  6. Ventrell, Patrick (2012) Press Release: South China Sea from the US Department of State. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/08/196022.htm
  7. Villanueva, Hector (2013) Weak Republic from the Manila Bulletin. Retrieved from http://96.31.84.32/articles/391519/weak-republic#.UVAhMFvwK4I
  8. Yan, Gregg (2012) How the Philippines is saving their coral reefs – And how it is good for fishermen, tourism and communities from Wildlife Extra. Retrieved from http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/marine/philippines-coral-reefs.html#cr

Author Bio: Britanny Cheng is an incoming senior at the University of Southern California where she is pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies. She attributes her love for the environment to her upbringing in the Philippines that is near to the ocean and many beautiful beaches. This inspired her to become a certified advanced water diver. In the future, she plans on hopefully research diving for a living whilst increasing awareness for the implementation of marine reserves in the Philippine waters. This is her second time participating in one of USC Dornsife’s Problems Without Passport programs.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program.   This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

Images: top, bottom

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins
A New Faculty Member on the Team
An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact
Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich
Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity
The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island
Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences
Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do
Dreading the Dredging: Military Buildup on Guam and Implications for Marine Biodiversity in Apra Harbor
Is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Doing Enough?
The Status of Fisheries in China: How deep will we have to dive to find the truth?

 

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. CherryBombSim 4:50 pm 06/4/2013

    “Ideally, the Spratly Islands should go to the country that is most equipped and most qualified to sustainably develop the islands’ resources and protect their diverse marine ecosystems; ”

    Maybe this is true in some abstract sense, but the other countries involved are probably going to read this as “Your property should belong to us because we are technically and morally superior to you.” A non-starter for negotiations.

    Also, you keep going on about how sad and unfortunate it is that the United States is not pushing the Philippines’ claims more aggressively. Maybe so from their point of view, but I would guess that the United States’ primary goal is to avoid open warfare, and pushing the claim too strongly might undermine that.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Aquanut 4:50 am 06/5/2013

    A well written synopsis of the situation in my view, by author B. Cheng!

    I will however concur with the first response in that this view; “Ideally, the Spratly Islands should go to the country that is most equipped and most qualified to sustainably develop the islands’ resources and protect their diverse marine ecosystems…” would seem to be fairly flawed and should Not be encouraged.

    That is, such an attitude and perception being not sufficient in itself, would be a fairly arrogant and hegemonic/imperialist view taken by an hypothetical country that attempted to justify their unilateral entitlement and sole jurisdiction/sovereignty of a disputed area, etc.

    Other than that, I would in fact concur with the view that the US should not change it’s core position and in fact step up and take a more proactive invested role in ‘enticing and assuaging’ ALL parties to negotiate multi-laterally solution to the Spratly Island dispute.

    Would that mean that the USG should promote Philippines as the sole ‘winner’ of the territory? No. That too would be a non-starter and would shoot all credibility the US had in the matter as an arbitrator/facilitator.

    Besides, Malaysia and Philippines share at least one major ‘shoal/reef’ in overlapping EEZ waters… and secondly, in all fairness, there’s one fairly significant shoal/islet on which Philippines even have troops stationed, which is actually outside Philippines EEZ.

    Yet, while the EEZ-argument in itself might be weighted in Philippines benefit overall for such necessary multi-lateral negotiations which are needed ASAP… a more immediate concern and legitimate issue which USG could truly support Manila over in the interim would be: NO foreign naval or maritime enforcement vessel has the international legal right to ‘intimidate or push away’ Filipino fishermen that are fishing within Philippine’s EEZ! That is simply unacceptable, especially in Philippine EEZ waters which are NOT overlapping with other another country’s EEZ. That would absolutely be a justified policy to press forth, not provocative; but simply the balanced and proper support to give in support of Philippines at this time.

    So in conclusion, no, the USG should not be trying to pressure some sort of detailed outcome of a negotiated Spratly settlement… but USG should justifiably promote a just cause for all parties to accelerate a multi-lateral pathway and series of step-by-step settlements as perhaps a more feasible solution than an all-encompassing ‘super-settlement’ which could take decades!

    Respects from a ‘diver’ who also has appreciated the opportunity to dive in Philippine waters!

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  3. 3. vbberdin 11:32 am 06/5/2013

    “Ideally, the Spratly Islands should go to the country that is most equipped and most qualified to sustainably develop the islands’ resources and protect their diverse marine ecosystems;”

    What? Where did that come from? Is that what they teach you in your University? Well I have some assignments for you Missy. Try reading some International Laws that should be in effect, and should be followed by ALL of its signatories including china. For starters, read some about UNCLOS and EEZ in order to gain better perspective at WHAT SHOULD BE followed in these territorial disputes. Now Ms Cheng, oh! There you go! “cheng” ok… now I know where you’re coming from. Say, how’s the the ’50c Party’ been doing? I see you guys are everywhere!

    Link to this
  4. 4. skampilan 9:34 am 10/24/2013

    US cannot side with the Philippines. China is holding its neck in the tune of “1.3 trillion dollars” and growing. That is the bottom line.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Mickey_Finn 12:21 pm 12/18/2013

    The Spratly dispute is really between Vietnam and China. Both have the best historical claims going back centuries. Philippines only discovered them in the 1956′s. The other claimants have an even weaker claim largely based on proximity and continental shelf laws. But UNCLOS only came into effect in ’82.

    Also worth noting Philippine’s navy has also attacked and killed Chinese fishermen. But what right do filipinos have even being there? For centuries these islands have been controlled by Vietnam, China and more recently France and Japan.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Mickey_Finn 12:28 pm 12/18/2013

    “none of the five countries involved in this territorial dispute are known for their green technology.”

    China has a very poor track record with the environment. Fact is I recently read they have the largest green tech industry ($68B) in the world and twice the size of no. 2, the US’s at $35B.

    Link to this
  7. 7. jethrodrigo 11:58 am 02/23/2014

    Spratly Island is for Philippines because it is stated in our constitution that 200 miles from all sides of the Philippines are the territory. So that, the Spratly Island belongs to the Philippines not for China.

    Jethro L. Rodrigo
    contributor, http://www.ourhappyschool.com

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