Contentious Rocks and a Library Visit
I hadn’t set foot in a library in years. That changed some weeks ago when I decided to go on an overdue visit to the Ortigas Library where a lecture on the controversial Scarborough Shoals was going to be.
To the uninitiated, Scarborough Shoals is currently at the center of a territorial dispute between China and the Philippines. The fact that it is just 123 nautical miles away from the Philippines and well within the country’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone as stated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) apparently isn’t enough to seal the deal.
I used to put up statuses on Facebook to point out how outrageous it all is. But as in the case of many an international dispute, it’s never so simple. Plus, in the face of Chinese aggression, I realized that I was going to have to reevaluate the way I deal with the issue. I’ve read enough books and seen too many movies about war to know that I’m really a pacifist at heart. So what now?
It seemed serendipitous that this should find its way into my inbox. I figured I’d know better what to do after going, so off I went.
Courtesy of Ortigas Foundation
At that evening’s talk, John Silva started things off by admitting that the lecture idea stemmed from a ploy to get more people to visit the Ortigas Library. Did you know that they have a great collection of vintage maps? I didn’t either. Kudos to Ortigas Foundation’s executive director for hitting on the right formula to get people to come! But while he succeeds in doing that, all his good intentions weren’t enough to convince anyone from the Chinese Embassy to present its side of the story
That honor was instead given to Chito Sta. Romana, a former ABC newscaster/journalist familiar with China from having lived there for 4 decades, who spoke alongside Harry Roque, an environmental lawyer who presented Philippine interests.
Atty. Harry Roque and Chito Sta. Romana
Here’s what I learned:
To the question of ownership, both countries prove their claim through historical records. China asserts its rights to what it calls the Huanyang Islands as far back as Kublai Khan’s time when it was discovered, even if mention of the shoal in its history reappears only in 1935. The Philippines has maps as far back as the 1724 that include what we call Bajo Masinloc, but it’s got a lot of maps excluding it as well. So as proof goes, it really isn’t perfect.
Moving on to another way to prove ownership is by a show of governance. Scarborough Shoal is a collection of 6 rocks above water most times, yet both countries have claims of putting structures up on separate occasions – a concrete cylinder for China, and a lighthouse for the Philippines, among other things. Deciding on which claim is superior this way is far from ideal as actions from both sides should just cancel each other out.
So. How do we move forward?
Judging from the Q&A that followed, I wasn’t the only one looking for a clear answer. Resolving it bilaterally, which China insists on doing, will only serve to preserve the status quo. The best way for both parties to move on is to take the matter up to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. As both countries have signed on to UNCLOS, any one party can raise the dispute up for judicial determination. And at the end of that process – the clear decision we’ve all been waiting for.
Atty. Roque says that the issue is one for litigators to settle, and I have to agree. But the reality is that it isn’t so. Not yet, anyway. Why haven’t we gone to court? The fate of Scarborough Shoals rests on governments and the tenuous web of diplomacy they have going with each other. In other words, it’s probably a lot of negotiating behind closed doors that normal people like you and me have no access to. In a way, I get some kind of answer to my question of what-to-do-next after all, and that is to trust in the people behind the scenes and to hope that they know exactly what they’re doing.
To end, and I know it’s a bit frustrating, I leave you with more photos I took on maps that were on display at the library that night. The replica of the massive one from the Treaty of Paris was pretty cool, though it puts Bajo Masinloc just outside the Philippines’ territorial line.
Treaty of Paris map
From the 1899 Atlas de Filipinas, which was incorporated into the US Coast and Geodetic survey map when the Philippines was taken over.
Islas Filipinas, Atlas de Espana Y Sus Posesiones de Ultramar. An 1852 Spanish map of the Philippines including Bajo Masinloc.
A 1760 French map identifies Panacot, which may have included Bajo Masinloc.
And here’s a bonus look at the map of the Fort before its transformation into today’s favorite hangout. It looked fun there even then.
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