|Atty Jesus Falcis and Jennifer Gutierrez, HAPI Executive Director and Justice Carpio|
HAPI was invited to attend the seminar to help spread awareness and understanding about the South China / West Philippine Sea dispute. Justice Carpio specifically acknowledged the presence of HAPI at one point during his lecture and the importance of environmental non-governmental organizations (NGO) in helping spread awareness.
States under international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), are given rights to their territorial sea, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and their extended continental shelf (ECS). Beyond the extended continental shelf is what is called the high seas or international waters, where no state has an exclusive or sovereign right but is owned by all states as common heritage of mankind.
A territorial sea stretches for 12 nautical miles from its baseline, or the low-water line along its coast. States have full sovereignty over its territorial waters, subject only to the right of innocent passage from the ships of other states. An exclusive economic zone stretches for 200 nautical miles, where states have exclusive sovereign rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources. An extended continental shelf can stretch for up to 350 nautical miles, where states have sovereign rights regarding the exploration and exploitation of natural resources including oil and gas deposits as well as other minerals and biological resources of the seabed.
China also claims that the case before the PCA is improper because the dispute in the Spratly Islands and other reefs in the South China / West Philippine Sea involves territorial disputes. Justice Carpio explained the basis of the Philippines’ claim, which was upheld by the PCA on the issue of jurisdiction last October 29, 2015.
The dispute between Philippines and China is not territorial since the PCA generally found that the islands and reefs involved in the dispute are not rocks or islands but low-tide elevations, which is a naturally formed area of land above water at low tide but submerged at high-tide.
Aside from depriving the Philippines of its legal rights over its EEZ and ECS, Justice Carpio also discussed the foreign and national security implications if China maintains “sovereign” rights over the 9-dash line.
Justice Carpio opines that China is looking at strengthening its hold in the Spratlys to give it better access to the Bashi Channel, a waterway between the Philippines and Taiwan that exits into the Pacific Ocean from the South China / West Philippine Sea. This is allegedly to allow China an alternative route from the Taiwan Strait into the Pacific Ocean so it can position its nuclear submarines and warheads from a position that can reach the United States in case of a nuclear war.
However, the biggest security implication to the Philippines would be the proximity of Chinese troops and aircrafts to Palawan and the western coast of Luzon.
China’s reclamation projects, as justified by its 9-dash line, in the Spratlys spells a big disaster for the marine ecology in the South China / West Philippine Sea and beyond.
Justice Carpio shocked the audience by discussing how China’s reclamation projects in the 7 reefs in Spratlys affect not only the 7 but also 10 other reefs in the area, or 17 in total. He explains how China had to dredge up material from the 10 other reefs to be able to build the artificial islands and airstrips in the 7 reefs it has reclaimed.
Justice Carpio went on to explain the ecological history and importance of reefs in the South China / West Philippine Sea. The reefs of an atoll like Mischief Reef for example take 30 million years to form. The reefs have been destroyed by Chinese dredging ships, which crush the coral reefs to pile it up to form an artificial island.
Coral reefs are diverse underwater ecosystems held together by calcium carbonate structures secreted by corals. Coral reefs are built by colonies of tiny animals found in marine waters that contain few nutrients. Often called “rainforests of the sea”, shallow coral reefs form some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. They occupy less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean surface, about half the area of France, yet they provide a home for at least 25% of all marine species. (credits: Wikipedia)