The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has set a deadline of May 12 next year for claims submissions, and signatory nations to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea have been quickening their pace in enacting related laws.
The Philippines is no exception, and both houses of Congress have proposed bills to incorporate the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal, the only visible part of the Macclesfield Bank, into Philippine territory, which would result in a redrawing of its continental shelf boundary lines. These actions are worthy of our attention.
On Dec. 13 last year, the Philippine House of Representatives passed House Bill 3216, which redefines the baseline of Philippine territory, on second reading. However, the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs, an office under the Office of the President, expressed reservations about the bill because it incorporated the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands into the Philippine archipelagic baseline. This could spark regional tensions and harm cooperation with China.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs sent the baseline bill back to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs for another review. The department seeks to designate the Spratlys, referred to as the Kalayaan Islands by the Philippines, as a “regime of islands” rather than enclosing them within the national baseline.
In other words, the department’s baseline would be determined separately from the Philippine archipelago.
The Philippines is also planning to expand the limits of its continental shelf from 200 nautical miles (370km) to 350 nautical miles, supposedly to gain access to the Spratlys’ natural resources and oil.
The HB 3216 baseline bill defines at least six territories, including the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, which do not belong to the Philippines, as lying within the national baseline. It would be difficult under international law for this claim to be recognized.
Senator Antonio Trillanes advocates connecting the Scarborough Shoal with the Philippine archipelago while designating the Spratlys as a “regime of islands.” This situation would be similar to the UK’s ownership of the Falkland Islands or the US’ ownership of the Hawaiian islands.
This position adopted by the Philippines is unacceptable. The territory of the Philippines is clearly outlined in Article 3 of the 1898 Treaty of Paris between the US and Spain, which specified the boundaries using latitudinal and longitudinal positions.
Afterwards, the Philippines amended the baseline by passing the Baseline Law in 1961 and Republic Act 5446 in 1968. Presidential Decree 1596 issued in 1978 claimed the Kalayaan Islands as part of the Philippines.
These were all unilateral acts of illegal territorial expansion.
According to Article 3 of the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded the islands south of the 20th parallel of north latitude to the US. The Batanes Islands, which lie on the 21st parallel, fall outside that range and so do not belong to the Philippines.
The 1961 Baseline Law extended the northern boundary to 21˚ 7’ N. In the same way, Presidential Decree 1596 sought to annex the Spratlys into Philippine territory. Now the Philippines is attempting to take a step further by legislating all of the territory that it claims.
Signatory nations of the Law of the Sea Convention are currently determining their territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, continental shelves and even their continental shelf baselines according to the rules of the convention.