The Philippines and the Spratly Islands
by Alex Sanchez
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Blog Post - September 14, 2011
Disclaimer: this isn’t a traditional blog post but rather excerpts from a personal piece that never got published regarding The Philippines and the Spratly islands. In the article I discussed Manila’s claim to the Spratlys, internal security in the country, the status of its military, as well relations with the U.S. and China. My original piece never got published so figured I might as well repackage some of it and post it here, the topic is certainly fascinating. I apologize if any of the info is dated.
An archipelago located in the South China Sea known as the Spratly Islands essentially consists of a group of islets and reefs, incapable of sustaining human life. A number of factors have made the Spratlys geo-strategically important in the past decades vis-à-vis regional affairs: geographical location, the nation that controls them would control a sizable area of the sea around them, and possible underwater oil deposits. Up to six nations have laid claims to these islands.
The Philippines’ control of part of the Spratly Islands is an interesting case of a militarily weak (at least when compared to several of its neighbors) and politically unstable nation laying a claim on a territory that provokes conflict with a major power, namely the People's Republic of China (PRC). Furthermore, in view of its, unfortunately, history of military coups as well as deadly domestic insurgent groups, it is debatable for how long can Manila maintain its control of part of the Spratlys without external aid (namely from the US). Due to the continued US-PRC struggle for influence in the region, the Philippines’ foreign policy ( closely linked to the reality of its domestic politics) and its claim to the Spratlys are relevant to the future of the South China Sea.
The Spratly Islands in Perspective – Philippine Interests
Manila’s interests in the Spratly Islands go hand in hand with what makes them so coveted. The islands should actually be defined as “islets” because of their miniature size. The biggest islands can, at most, hold a building or two. Located in the Southwestern and Southern parts of the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands have around 120 formations that go from islands, isles, shoals, banks, atolls, cays and reefs, with elevations from two to six meters and cover an area of approximately 180,000 kilometers. The islands have no natural resources to hold life and there is no native population to them.
Motivated by security concerns and economic interests, littoral states began in the late 1960s to make overlapping sovereignty claims to South China Sea islands, a process that has effectively led to the de facto military partition of the Spratly Islands archipelago. Apart from The Philippines, the other countries that have laid claims to the Spratlys are: the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China/Taiwan (ROC), Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, with Indonesia being an interested party.
The importance of the islands has been well documented; there are three major factors to the Spratlys that make them desirable:
. Location: the Spratly Islands are located in the South China Sea, a route used by transport ships (most of them coming from the Malacca Strait) as well as military vessels from different nations. Any nation that possesses the islands (all or some of them) would have an important advantage on terms of intelligence regarding the movement of vessels, as well as aircraft, on that particularly area. Writing in 1977, Selig Harrison stated that “the sea lane running between the Paracels and Spratlys is used by oil tankers moving form the Persian Gulf to Japan as well as by warships en route from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.” (Harrison, Pp. 191)
. Extended Sovereignty: under international sea conventions the control of an island by any state also gives the island’s owner the sovereign control of a number of miles around the island. This is a major reason why the Spratly Islands have been labeled as islands, instead of islets; in order to be sure that the maritime sovereignty associated with an island will be maintained. Under the Law of the Sea Convention, “any state holding valid legal title to sovereignty over an island is permitted to establish a 12-nautical mile territorial sea and a 200—nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the island” (Joyner, Pp. 195 &198).
. Resources. The South China Sea attracted international attention during the 1970s when geological studies first suggested the existence of substantial reserves of petroleum and natural deposits beneath its sea-bed.Experts say that, at least for the time being, the possibility of finding oil is the least relevant of the main reasons for controlling the Spratlys.
The Neighborhood Factor - Geopolitics
Christopher Joyner clearly defines the geopolitical and geo-security importance of the Spratlys by explaining that:
“Lying between Vietnam to the west and the Philippines to the east, the Spratlys offer a potential staging location for blocking ships traversing the South China Sea. Aircraft, including helicopters, based in the Spratlys could fly within closer range of the Malacca and Sunda Straits, vital choke-points through which shipping in the South China Sea must pass to enter the Indian Ocean. A military presence in the Spratlys, such as an airfield, could effectively be used to stop all shipping in the South China Sea if armed conflict were to break out in mainland Asia”
(Joyner, P. 205).
The PRC would like to control the islands to safely carry out maritime operations. It would also help create a defense line around its south maritime borders. As early as 1975 the Chinese media had claimed the importance of the South China Sea, which is “an important junction for navigation and an important maritime gateway from China’s mainland and nearby islands.”(Peking Review, quoted in Harrison, Pp. 191)
It is important for other states to prevent the PRC from achieving control over the Spratlys – with Vietnam and Taiwan perhaps being at the top of the ladder when it comes to regional actors. While the Spratlys are not particularly geographically close to Taiwan, it is not in Taipei’s interest to see the PRC gain too much maritime power and free reign, as this could be the first step of an encirclement of Taiwan, should the PRC also gain influence over the Philippine Sea.
Similarly, relations between Vietnam and PRC have had several tense moments. In 1974 the two countries (at the time South Vietnam, before the NVA gained control of the country) clashed over the Paracel Islands, with China resulting victorious. On February 8 1987, Chinese and Vietnamese warships opened fire on each other in the area. On March 14 of that same year, a more serious confrontation occurred off Union Reef, as each navy lost a vessel and 120 Vietnamese sailors drowned. Even more serious was the violent clash between China and Vietnam in March 1988. On October 2007, even if it was not a military clash, diplomatic relations were strained as China began promoting tourism to the Paracels as if they are Chinese territory, infuriating Vietnam. In return, Hanoi appointed a “Chairman” to rule the Paracels in April 2009. In response to these events, Taiwan reiterated its sovereignty over the Paracels on June 2009, angering Hanoi.
The Philippines’ Claim to the Spratlys
On May 17, 1951, Filipino President Elpidio Quirino claimed his country’s rights to the Spratly Islands, some of which are in Philippines’ territorial waters. In 1957 a Filipino named Tomas Cloma claimed that he had discovered the Spratly Islands and claimed them for himself, not for his country. In 1971 Manila officially claimed part of the Spratly Islands based on the “explorer” Cloma’s discovery and occupation. Manila argued that the Spratly did not belong to anyone, hence they could be claimed. Such a declaration clashed with Beijing’s arguments that Chinese fishermen had visited, even colonized, the islands centuries ago. In April 1972, Manila laid claim to eight of the islands, the largest being Pag-asa. The islands were designated to be part of Palawan Province, with its own local government. In February 2009, Philippine lawmakers passed a bill to part of the Spratlys, both the Kalayaan islands where Philippine troops are stationed, as well as Scarborough Shoal, also claimed by China.
In an interview with the author, a Philippine professor explained that there has been a “consistent claim” since the time of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos over the Kalaayan. Considering that the claimed islands are already domestically accepted as part of Palawan Province, and in one of the islands there is a presence of Philippine marines, Manila claim to the islands is seen as a feat accompli.
Unfortunately for The Philippines, its internal security is far from ideal, so its military cannot fully focus on protecting its maritime borders, including in disputed areas like the Spratlys. Almost immediately after independence in 1946, insurgent movements begun, including the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its New People’s Army (NPA) sprung again. These groups continue their struggle today, at the same time that new insurgent movements have appeared.
The NPA currently has around 5.000 troops, down from 25,000 in 1986. It seems there is little intention by either the Communist leadership or the government to resort to mediation or dialogue. In 2007 the NPA began carrying out attacks against international mining companies. By early 2008, Manila was confident that it could carry out a final offensive, for which it was planning to recruit up to 3,000 new troops. Nevertheless a decisive victory continues to elude the military; in March 2009, the NPA had vowed to continue operations in Panay Island thanks to an increase in fighters. Since beginning their insurgency in 1969, the NPA has been blamed for over 40,000 deaths.
Likewise, there is still concern about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Peace talks to expand a Muslim autonomous region collapsed in August 2008. In a 2007 confrontation 14 Philippine marines were killed by the Moro rebels, 10 of which were beheaded. On early June 2009, the military announced that it had killed 30 rebels and captured a Moro separatist camp on Mindanao island. Regardless of military accomplishments, Then-President Arroyo (unlike her dealings with the NPA or Abu Sayyaf) has pushed for renewed mediation with the MILF. The Moro rebels have a reported strength of 11,500 armed men.
Another Philippine insurgent organization is the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) which has been under US scrutiny for its alleged ties with other religiously-extremist groups in Southeast Asia like Jemaah Islamiyah, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka as well as Al-Qaeda. On January 2009, Philippine Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga argued that reports on a possible buildup of ASG’s forces after heavy losses last year were superficial, “basically, their numbers have been reduced, they're not so much of a threat […].” In spite of arguably fewer members, ASG’s operations have continued to have effective results – in early June 2009 up to seven Philippine soldiers died fighting ASG rebels in Indanan in the southern Sulu province. Abu Sayyaf’s maritime operations have also become a source of concern, particularly due to the heavy maritime traffic that goes through the South China Sea.
In September 2007, the Philippine military filed a complaint of alleged MILF support for Abu Sayyaf when the latter insurgent movement clashed with troops in Basilan, where two soldiers died.
In April 2009, Philippine Defense Minister Gilberto Teodoro said that the 80,000-strong Army needed an additional 12 battalions (6,000 troops) to deal with the country’s insurgent groups. It is not surprising that the Philippine armed forces do not have the resources to focus on external threats, much less militarily expanding Philippine sovereignty to the Spratly Islands if they require even more troops to establish peace at home.
The Philippines, the People’s Republic of China and the Spratly Incidents
Manila’s relations with China have been historically mixed. The Chinese tend to look with contempt to other races, including South Asians like the Filipinos. At the same time, Filipinos see unassimilated Chinese who live in the Philippines as strangers; they are often the focal point of racism and discrimination.
A number of incidents have brought the Philippines close to a confrontation with the PRC over the Spratlys and the South China Sea in general. As far back ias the Marcos government, Manila has attempted to create an ASEAN coalition to restrain Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. In mid-late 1994, Beijing constructed a military observation post on Mischief Reef, a Philippine island 135 miles off the Palawan and inside the Philippines’ 200-exclusive economic zone. Manila learned about the construction only in February 1995 and then took a series of measures as a reprisal. Once Manila discovered their existence, Beijing claimed that these were shelters for fishermen. Manila argued that the structures resembled guard towers, including a satellite dish. Manila also sent vessels and aircraft that escorted photographers to Mischief Reef show the supposedly new ‘threat’ to Philippine territory, and provoked minor confrontations with Chinese ships. The Philippine military destroyed buoys set up by the Chinese in the contested area in order to deny any claim by Beijing that part, if not all, of the Spratly Islands belong to it.
(Clinton statement @ 00:38)
In 1996 diplomatic tensions ceased as the two countries signed a code of conduct, only for the issue to be once again revived in 1997 when Chinese warships were spotted around Mischief Reef and the Philippine-held Kota Island, also in the Spratlys. “Beijing’s apparent policy of seizing territory while avoiding actual conflict reinforced the Philippine view that China posed a long-term security challenge” (Cruz de Castro. China, the Philippines, and US influence in Asia. Pp. 2.) In spite of this, Beijing and Manila have attempted to improve security relations by a number of high profile visits, including Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian’s 2002 visit to Manila. In 2004, the Philippine Defense Secretary and his Chinese counterpart signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation.
As Joyner explains,
“the South China has become a patchwork of conflicting national claims, most recently driven by geo-political considerations over development of potential hydrocarbon resources [...] The intractable and contentious nature of jurisdictional disputes over the Spratlys have prompted claimant states to take efforts to enforce their claims by stationing a permanent military presence in the archipelago.”
The Spratly Islands dispute could be catalogued as a “frozen dispute,” paraphrasing the “frozen conflict” term for unsolved conflicts in the post-Soviet world (like the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova in Southeastern Europe). It is unlikely that the Spratly dispute will be resolved in the coming years, even if the competitors chose to go to some international tribunal like the International Court of Justice or seek a third party mediator to determine the fate of the islands. The fact that the PRC is one of the competitors, however, raises the importance of the Spratlys. The increasing strength and technology of China’s military, along with a foreign policy which is seeking to project more of Beijing’s power abroad, makes the Spratly dispute of importance. Should Beijing gain control of the islands (as a whole or even a major fraction), it will have access to possible deep-water resources and control of the maritime area. Controlling the Spratlys would also mean for Beijing a type of 'forward' presence (as difficult as it may be to built anything on these rocks and tiny reefs, though it has occurred in the recent and not so distant past) in the South China Sea, which would most likely be seen as a security threat to Taiwan and US interests in South Asia. From this point of view, a Washington-Manila friendship is important to the US due to the Philippines’ geostrategical location.
As a relatively militarily weak state in an important geopolitical region, the Philippines is not able to stand as a fully neutral player in the geopolitical game going on around it. Because of its internal domestic affairs, Washington will have a continuous interest in war against Abu Sayyaf and any other extremist group which could be tied to Al Qaeda and the global Washington-labeled and spearheaded 'War on Terror.' At the same time, the Philippines are an important Washington ally as, along with Taiwan and Japan, help create a 'sanitary corridor' to oversee Chinese military operations and expansion.
The geographical position of the Spratly Islands make them important for the ongoing Asian 'expansion game.' Maritime trade going through the area as well as their practical use for naval bases are the two major reasons that make this group of islets and reefs relevant to events going on around them. The possibility of deepwater oil reserves, generally overlooked, may become a pressing reason for their control as oil needs of claimant states increase in the coming years and depleting reserves force them to look for new sources. There is already the case of Russian laying claim to chunks of the underwater Arctic, possibly to carry out oil drilling in the future.
Six nations claim the islands to different degrees, from partial control of specific islands (the Philippines) to full control (China, Vietnam). The domestic reality of each of the participant countries in this dispute, also varies. Manila has been successful so far at keeping control of the islands that it lays claim to, however without upgrading the armed forces’ equipment, it is doubtful if the country will be able to maintain control in the long term when necessity for resources and influence pushes the other stronger disputing countries to the Spratlys. Resolution of the Philippines’ numerous internal issues would naturally be a positive development for its foreign policy, not to mention for the Philippine population in general. It is difficult to be an influential player in the neighborhood if one’s home is a mess.
Cruz de Castro, Renato. (2005). Philippine Defense Policy in the 21st Century: Autonomous Defense or Back to the Alliance. Pacific Affairs. 78(3):403-422
Cruz de Castro, Renato. (2007). China, the Philippines and US influence in Asia. Asian Outlook. 2. July.
Cruz de Castro, Renato. (1999). Adjusting to the Post-US Bases Era: The Ordeal of the Philippine Military’s Modernization Program. Armed Forces & Society. 26(1):119-0138.
Joyner, Christopher., (1998). ‘The Spratly Islands Dispute: Rethinking the Interplay of Law, Diplomacy and Geo-politics in the South China Sea’ The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law. 13(2):193-236.
Harrison, Selig. (1977). China, Oil and Asia: Conflict Ahead? New York: Columbia University Press
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