MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines should work with Vietnam in “accurately surveying” the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea before China completes its artificial islands in the area, an analyst said.
In an interview published by Deutsche Welle on Friday, September 19, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analyst Gregory Poling explained that these artificial islands can “make it more difficult, if not impossible” to settle the Philippines' case against China.
“In the meantime, the one thing this should get Manila and Hanoi to do is make a concerted effort to short-circuit China's attempts to hide the real status of features by accurately surveying them now before further reclamation works make it impossible to determine their original geography,” Poling said.
The Philippines claims parts of the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea. Vietnam also says it owns parts of the disputed waters. (READ: Vietnam to Philippines: United, we will win)
Poling, a Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies fellow at the Washington-based CSIS, made his suggestion as China continued its reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he fears China is building a military base in the West Philippine Sea through its reclamation activities.
'Changing facts on the ground'
In fact, on September 9, the Philippine Navy said it has seen structures resembling lighthouses on two reefs in the West Philippine Sea.
On the same day, the BBC also put the issue in the global spotlight after it published “China's Island Factory,” a much-shared multimedia report on “new islands” being made “by the might of the Chinese state.”
Poling said it “was no accident” that China chose to build artificial islands on 5 features in the South China Sea, “the status of which (as islands, rocks, or low-tide elevations) are all part of the Philippines' case against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration.”
“It seems Beijing is trying to change facts on the ground to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the court to decide what the original status of these features may have been,” he said.
He added: “Potential access for small aircraft or patrol vessels might also be a benefit, but it is too early to say. We should regard the alarm bells from Manila and elsewhere about military bases in the Spratlys to be premature at best. These features are unlikely to be capable of hosting any substantial facilities in the near future on the level of those Taiwan maintains at Itu Aba or the Vietnamese have at Spratly Island.”
No legal effects, experts say
Poling, however, said he doubts if reclamation “could affect the legal status of these features.”
He explained: “The vast majority of legal scholars have come to the conclusion that reclamation cannot change the status of a feature; it can merely create an 'artificial island,' which, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, generates no entitlements. Of course, if reclamation makes it impossible for any court in the future to determine the original status of these features, then China's work could certainly stymie the legal process.”
In an interview with Rappler on June 26, maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal also said China's reclamation doesn't legally jeopardize the Philippines' case, contrary to a claim by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs in May.
“The merits of the case were set when we filed the Statement of Notification and Claim. These activities are taking place after the case has been filed, they cannot affect the merits of the case as filed. Legally, it doesn't jeopardize it,” Batongbacal explained. (READ: Q and A: Case vs China 'not enough,' expert says)
Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said what jeopardizes the case is the “practical implication” involving China's “cabbage strategy.”
Quoting Major General Zhang Zhaozhong of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, the New York Times said the cabbage strategy “entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats – fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships – that the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.