MANILA – Malacañang’s top legal counsel is apparently confused with the difference between the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.
In an interview with ANC’s After the Fact on Tuesday, chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo said that the West Philippine Sea, which is the country’s exclusive economic zone in the disputed South China Sea, is also being claimed by other nations besides China.
Asked if what’s stopping the Philippines from enforcing the 2016 UN arbitral victory that invalidated Beijing’s expansive 9-dash line claim in the hotly-contested South China Sea, within which is the Philippine EEZ, Panelo said Manila cannot enforce the ruling due to other countries’ territorial claims.
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“You must remember that in the West Philippine Sea, there are many countries disputing that (ruling)… for instance Vietnam has 21 reefs or islands there. China has seven, Taiwan has one, Malaysia has five, and Philippines has nine,” he said.
“Just to clarify this, Secretary Panelo, are you referring to the West Philippine Sea, the EEZ, or the Spratlys dispute?” ANC’s Christian Esguerra asked.
“The entire West Philippine Sea. That’s the disputed territory. There are so many claimants there,” the Palace official replied.
“Wait, so I’d like to get this clear so as not to be accused of misconstruing your statements. So for you, the West Philippine Sea is disputed?” Esguerra again asked.
“What I’m saying is, that area, there are claimants, even within the exclusive economic zone, Vietnam is within that area,” Panelo answered, even offering a map supposedly marking disputes in the West Philippine Sea by various countries.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea and who was also part of the same interview, fact-checked Panelo’s statements, saying there is a clear distinction between the territorial rows and the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, the latter of which the UN ruled over in 2016.
“If you say the West Philippine Sea, the basis should be really Administrative Order [No.] 29, which clearly refers to only part of the South China Sea, which is under Philippine jurisdiction. It has never been synonymous with the South China Sea,” Batongbacal said.
“It’s (EEZ) not the entire area of the South China Sea. And the arbitration award does not deal with territorial disputes. Even the arbitration tribunal makes it clear, at every step, that it is not going to deal, in either way, with the territorial disputes over the islands and rocks … It’s dealing only with the maritime aspects, meaning jurisdiction over the waters outside of those territories,” he explained.
Under Administrative Order No. 29, the EEZ, which extends at a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines of the Philippine archipelago, was named the West Philippine Sea in 2012.
The Philippines has sovereignty over the maritime domain under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Article 56 of the UNCLOS states that the country, as the coastal state in the disputed waters, has “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting conserving and managing the natural resources” of its EEZ.
Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia, and Brunei’s competing territorial and maritime claims in areas of the South China Sea are outside of the West Philippine Sea
Despite the 2016 UN ruling, China has aggressively encroached on reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, including some areas of the Philippine EEZ.
President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration have been blamed for the recent Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea due to his refusal to press Beijing to obey the 2016 ruling, as he sought investments and loans from the superpower.
Duterte was slammed earlier after he said the Philippine arbitral victory was a “piece of paper” that led to nothing.
Legal analysts: South China Sea arbitral win of PH not a mere piece of paper
Malacañang has said it was “not okay” for China to continue its militarization of the West Philippine Sea, but at the same time asked what the Philippines could do about this.