Proposed baselines: War or surrender
MANILA, Philippines—(UPDATE) House Bill No. 3216, which is in virtual limbo after being passed by the House of Representatives on second reading last December, proposes that islands in the South China Sea already occupied by other countries including China be enclosed within Philippine territory.
But in a paper for the House committee on foreign affairs, the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs (CMOA), which is under the Office of the President, warned that the Philippines might be left to choose between declaring war to regain control of the islands or surrendering them outright.
“[The] proposed baselines will enclose foreign-occupied islands. This is a very critical situation,” the CMOA said.
In the paper, a copy of which was furnished the Philippine Daily Inquirer by a lawmaker, the CMOA presented on Tuesday the implications of the bill’s “bold” baseline definition before the House committee on rules, ostensibly to guide the latter on whether it should have the measure read out for third and final approval.
It said that since the occupation of the islands was done without the Philippines’ consent, “parts of our national territory must clearly and legally be considered occupied by foreign forces.”
“To preserve our sovereignty and territorial integrity, there are only two choices,” the CMOA said. “[Declare] war to vindicate our sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the archipelago, or surrender and cede parts of the archipelago to the foreign occupant in order to preserve what remains.”
HB 3216 defines the baselines as encircling the Philippines’ main archipelago and extending like a dagger into the western side of Luzon to include the Scarborough Shoal and the waters off Zambales and the Kalayaan Group near Palawan.
The CMOA is chaired by the executive secretary with the secretaries of justice and of foreign affairs as vice chairs. It is a composite team made up of experts from Malacañang, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Justice and the National Mapping and Resource Information Agency (Namria).
Cebu Rep. Antonio Cuenco, chair of the House committee on foreign affairs and author of HB 3216 along with Cebu Rep. Raul del Mar and Mandaluyong Rep. Neptali Gonzales, said he believed that the measure should be passed on third reading.
But he acknowledged that the territorial issue had the potential of becoming an armed conflict.
“This issue about land is a very emotional issue. We have to handle this with extra care and circumspection,” he said.
On Wednesday, Cuenco acknowledged that a protest from China, coursed through the Philippine embassy in Beijing, had stalled the passage of HB 3216.
In the note, China warned that the Philippines' move could affect peace in the disputed Spratlys, which is being claimed by the two countries, along with Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, and Brunei.
Cuenco bared the Chinese protest amid the controversy triggered by the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) among the Philippines, China and Vietnam, which opposition lawmakers allege endangers the country's claim on the Spratlys in favor of China.
The JMSU is a tripartite agreement for seismic research between the Philippines, China, and Vietnam.
Cuenco is of the position that adjustments to the bill may be made when it is taken up in the bicameral conference committee.
Asked if adjustments were really needed, he said: “I can’t truly say whether [the CMOA position] is truly right or not. But it’s risky. We better be sure. What if [legal expert and former Solicitor General Estelito] Mendoza is right?”
Cuenco said Mendoza was one of the resource persons when the CMOA presented its case against the current baselines bill before the House committee on rules on Tuesday.
Cuenco said he is considering filing a substitute bill based on the CMOA’s executive position but only if the all-party caucus after the congressional break agrees.
“But until that happens, I will not file the substitute bill,” Cuenco said.
A source in the rules panel said the CMOA’s position on how the archipelagic baselines should be defined was called “the executive position.”
The CMOA paper said the position was adopted during a meeting of the National Security Council “presided [over] by the President” on March 4.
According to the “executive position,” the archipelagic baselines encircle the main archipelago and treats the Kalayaan Group and Scarborough Shoal as a “regime of islands.”
Kalayaan and Scarborough are thus excluded from the legislated baseline.
The CMOA presentation showed that 49 “features” of the islands proposed for enclosure by HB 3216 are occupied by Vietnam (27), China (nine), Malaysia (seven) and Taiwan (one).
It showed that seven of the “basepoints”—or the islands serving as basis for drawing the archipelagic baselines in the Kalayaan Group—are themselves occupied by foreign claimants.
Pugad Island or Southwest Cay is occupied by Vietnam, Zamora or Subi Reef by China, Kagitingan or Fiery Cross Reef by China, Kanluran or West Reef by Vietnam, Kalantiaw or Aboynas Cay by Vietnam, and Mariveles Reef and Pawikan or Investigator Shoal by Malaysia.
The CMOA also raised the need to build lighthouses on some of the basepoints, such as Sabina Shoal and Iroquois Reef.
“Both ... have low tide elevations as determined by Namria surveys and only through the construction of lighthouses therein will they qualify as basepoints,” it said, adding:
“This entails expenditures on the infrastructure and may be considered by the claimant countries as contrary to the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct for the South China Sea, Section 5 of which was specifically intended to discourage additional constructions.”
That declaration provides that the parties “undertake self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features....”
Told of the CMOA’s apparent warning on the implications of HB 3216, Senior Minority Leader Roilo Golez said: “In the same manner, China and Vietnam’s claimed baselines include islands we occupy.
“If we don’t make a similar claim, that can be construed as acceding to their claims. Let the conflict be a matter for arbitration provided for by the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).”
Golez lamented what he said was Malacañang’s involvement in the delay in the bill’s final passage in light of alleged pressure from Beijing for it to be shelved.
House cancels inquiry
He said Malacañang had also influenced the House into canceling the planned inquiry into the JMSU, which was to have started Thursday.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Malacañang is behind the cancelation of the hearing, in the same way the archipelagic baselines bill was shelved, in the same way the copy of the JMSU was removed from the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) website,” he said.
But Speaker Prospero Nograles said the recent representation made by Chinese Charge d’Affaires Deng Xijun and the communication from Beijing expressing displeasure over the passage of HB 3216 did not constitute pressure on the House to shelve it.
He also said reconsidering the bill did not necessarily mean that its stance on the enclosure of the Kalayaan Islands and Scarborough Shoal would change.
Nograles said it was the DFA that asked the House committee on foreign affairs to take another look at HB 3216.
“The problem is they only said it now, when [the bill is] already in plenary and almost done. So we may need to vote upon it on the floor when session resumes. To pull it out of plenary now will need a majority vote on the floor,” he said.
The House committee on foreign affairs chaired by Cuenco has voted to move in the plenary to have the bill “recommitted” to the panel for its deliberation.
Asked what Malacañang stood to gain from the shelving of HB 3216, Golez said: “China’s multibillion-dollar loan facility, softer and bigger than anything the World Bank, Asian Development Bank or Japan overseas development assistance can offer, and the juicy projects such as loans can finance appear irresistible.”
He said the supposed problem of a quorum for the canceled JMSU hearing might be nonexistent even during the five-week congressional recess, which started Thursday.
“All committees have been authorized to hold hearings during the break. Why is chairman Cuenco too pessimistic about a quorum? We only need one-fifth of the 65 members to have a quorum, and that’s 13,” Golez said.
The committee on foreign affairs, which was assigned by the House plenary to serve as the lead committee to look into the JMSU, has 65 members.
LEDAC priority bill
Despite the protest from China, Malacañang has urged Congress to pass the measure updating the scope of the country's territory to include the disputed Spratlys Islands, Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol said Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., and Senator Francis Escudero said they would agree to pass the measure so long as there would be no diminution of the national territory.
Apostol noted that HB 3216 was even classified as a "priority" measure by the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC).
Alluding to the JMSU, Pangilinan said in a text message: "Depends on the proposal and what it covers. If it is a bill that gives up portions of our territory under the guise of allowable pre-exploratory activities we will definitely not agree to it."
Pimentel said the territory bill should have been passed a long time ago. He said the Arroyo government may have been pressured into not giving it priority.
"We should have done it already. [It is] apparently not a priority of the…government. Now with scandals piling up one on top of the other [in] pacts with China, [it is] easy to imagine she was pressured not to prioritize it," he said.
Escudero himself wants more study into the proposed bill to ensure "that no further diminution of our national territory will happen."
When asked if the Spratlys should be mapped as part of the Philippines, he said: "At the very least, not to waive or lose any existing rights that we already have."
But Apostol, in a phone interview with reporters in Malacañang, said: “Congress should push through with amendments to the existing law on the continental shelf. Otherwise, we will no longer claim what is ours within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone that was granted to us by the UNCLOS."
The UNCLOS has set a 2009 deadline for nations to update the definitions of their territories.
"It was the UN who gave us the timeline. Now, if China has a complaint, they should file it before the UN. In the meantime, we will follow the UNCLOS. It's a LEDAC priority bill," he said.
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