The Philippines continues to be in a juggling act with regard to its diplomatic and military rows with its neighbouring countries in the region — it has an insurgency spilling over into Malaysian Sabah in the south, diplomatic rows over fishing rights and military jurisdiction over its northern seas, and an age-old commitment to uphold claims over islands and waters at its northwest frontier. The Spratly Islands where Manila maintains its biggest military encampment, specifically remain the more thorny issue among these.
The Spratly Islands are a disputed group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays, and islands in the South China Sea. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia (Sabah), and southern Vietnam. They contain less than 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles) of land area spread over more than 425,000 square kilometers (164,100 square miles) of sea. The Spratlys are one of 3 archipelagos of the South China Sea which comprise more than 30,000 islands and reefs and which complicate governance and economics in that region of Southeast Asia. Such small and remote islands have little economic value in themselves but are important in establishing international boundaries. No native islanders inhabit the islands which offer rich fishing grounds and may contain significant oil and natural gas reserves.
About 45 islands are occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan (ROC), Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei has also claimed an exclusive economic zone in the southeastern part of the Spratlys encompassing just one area of small islands on Louisa Reef. This has led to escalating tensions between numerous countries over the disputed status of the islands.
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Much of the loudest debate around these claims and counter-claims have been within political, military, and economic domains. But a recent report published by Scientific American puts forth a compelling case from a different perspective…
Some argue that the Philippines should take sovereignty over Spratly Islands because it has had the most success and experience with maintaining marine ecosystems, plus the islands are well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Philippines has almost 10% of the world’s marine protected areas (MPAs), which were created in response to the country’s rampant cyanide and dynamite fishing in the 1970s and 1980s (Yan 2012). No one can pass through, fish or dive in MPAs except to conduct scientific research. With more than 500 MPA sites within Philippine waters, the government as well as the military is highly experienced in dealing with marine ecosystems and management. Furthermore, the MPAs have shown signs of great success in conservation.
Indeed, if we are to take seriously the lip service dished out by the world’s politicians around the topic of the planet’s ecological health, one would think this would be as strong a case for Philippine sovereignity over the Spratlys as any else. Certainly a case built upon management of the ecology in the area puts petty disputes over territory, fishing, and fuel supply in better perspective. Territorial claims after all, are driven primarily by a country’s energy needs (food and fuel) which, in turn, are a function of population and how much said population consumes per capita. It is easy to connect the dots from there and come up with the hard questions around why such conflicts between nations and governments exist to begin with.
The Scientific American report also seemed critical of the overall position the United States government is taking on this matter which, it is widely believed, stems from the increasingly untenable economic dependence on China America finds itself hopelessly entangled in.
Unfortunately, the United States has refused to take sides on the matter. The United States Department of State released a press statement stating that they are closely monitoring the issue but will not take a position on the matter (Ventrell 2012). This almost ignores the Philippines involvement in the dispute and shows that despite the Philippines’ history of cooperation with the United States, they are doing nothing to support their strongest Southeast Asian allies.
It is in cases like this where the line between the bullshit and lip service of governments and the politicians who lead them, and the realities and sense espoused by the analytically disinterested communities of the scientifically-inclined becomes so spectacularly stark. It is an enduring tragedy of humanity that leadership is in the hands of the earlier rather than the latter. This is particularly relevant today, as the scale at which our species is able to both indadvertently and consciously change its environment increases exponentially with every passing decade.
[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the Wikipedia.org article “Spratly Islands” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site.]
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.