‘It’s West Philippine Sea’

Gov’t, AFP use it now to refer to disputed Spratly areas

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The Aquino government has apparently made it settled doctrine to use “West Philippine Sea” to refer to the waters west of the country where the Philippines has overlapping territorial claims with five other nations, instead of the all-embracing tag of “South China Sea.”

Tellingly, Malacañang yesterday used “West Philippine Sea” for the first time in a statement reacting to China’s warning on Thursday, issued through Ambassador Liu Jianchao, to rival claimants to the disputed Spratlys island group to stop searching for oil in the contested region without permission from China.

“The Republic of the Philippines has stated its position on the various territorial issues in the West Philippine Sea. We are committed to dialog with other claimants,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told a news briefing yesterday.

“We call on all parties to refrain from inflammatory statements that would make it more difficult to reach a mutually agreeable solution,” he said.

In the past two weeks, the Philippines has publicly accused Chinese forces of being behind seven confrontations with Filipinos in the Spratlys in less than four months.

However, Liu said the reported incidents were mere “rumors” or exaggeration, even as he asserted China’s claim to the reputedly oil-rich Spratlys island chain.

The islands are claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Based on history

Lacierda said the Palace was taking its cue from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) which has been using “West Philippine Sea” in the series of letters and notes verbales protesting China’s incursions into areas that the DFA claims were well within Philippine territory.

The DFA earlier explained that using “West Philippine Sea” to refer to the waters where the disputed territories lie was “in keeping with our tradition and history as well as reflective of its proper geographic location.”

The same waters “have long been called Dagat Luzon, or Luzon Sea by our fisherfolk and the rest of our people, and referred to as such in published maps since time immemorial after the major Philippine island of Luzon,” DFA spokesperson Eduardo Malaya explained earlier.

“On the other hand, South China Sea in Chinese is simply South Sea, while for the Vietnamese it is East Sea,” he said.

Akbayan party-list member Walden Bello has filed House Resolution No. 1350 proposing to officially name the region the “West Philippine Sea” to “strengthen [the Philippines’] claim to these controversial waters and the natural resources found within.”

Subliminal message

Yesterday, the Armed Forces weighed in, saying it has deliberately been using West Philippine Sea to refer to the area.

“What’s in a name, but when people keep saying that it is the South China Sea, there is a subliminal message that this is indeed a sea belonging to a country whose name appears in the name,” said Commodore Miguel Jose Rodriguez, the AFP deputy chief of staff for civil military operations who is also the military spokesperson.

‘Kalayaan Sea’

“Vietnam calls it their East Sea and China calls it their South Sea. We in the Philippines should call it West Philippine Sea,” he said.

Rodriguez (Philippine Military Academy Class of 1980) recalled that at the PMA, they were taught to refer to the area as “Kalayaan Sea” based on a newly issued presidential decree at the time naming the area claimed by the Philippines as the Kalayaan island group, or the “Luzon Sea” or “West Palawan Sea.”

The United States yesterday called on the Asian countries fighting for control of the Spratlys to resolve the issue peacefully.

“As Ambassador Harry Thomas, (Defense) Secretary (Robert) Gates and other US officials have said, we urge all claimants to exercise restraint in dealing with competing claims in the South China Sea. These issues need to be resolved peacefully within the framework of international law,” said Rebecca Thompson, US Embassy press attaché, in a statement apparently issued in response to Liu’s warning.

Rules-based approach

The DFA yesterday reiterated the Philippines’ rules-based approach to ending the dispute.

It has proposed the concept of a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation in which disputed territories could be recognized from undisputed areas as provided under international law.

“The Philippines has offered a specific framework for the resolution of differences and the pursuit of cooperation in the form of the ZOPFFC,” said Malaya.

In the ZOPFFC, the disputed islands could be “enclaved” by segregating them and adjacent waters from the rest of the waters of the South China Sea.

The DFA has said the enclaved area could be designated as a Joint Cooperation Area where joint activities could be conducted, such as marine scientific research, search and rescue operations, oil spill preparedness and conservation projects.

Defense posture

AFP Chief General Eduardo Oban Jr. said the military is careful to “avoid any miscalculation” that would provoke open hostilities in the Spratlys.

Speaking at the Manila Overseas Press Club forum on Thursday, Oban said the military has been keeping an “active defense posture” following China’s incursions this year into Philippine territory.

“If a Chinese vessel or any foreign vessel becomes hostile to us to the point of shooting at our own people, then we have to shoot back. We try to avoid that,” said Oban, a former Air Force fighter pilot.

Presence as deterrence

“We just hope they won’t (make further incursions). We will maintain our presence as a deterrent to incursions,” he said.

While there have been six incursions from China, the military also recorded “some” incursions from Vietnam, he said.

Oban said the Philippines’ diplomatic protests against the Chinese incursions were backed by reports from military field units.

Despite the ongoing spat with China, Oban does not consider the tensions serious.

“I give a low rating (between 1 to 10) in terms of the seriousness based on the incursions because of the statements made by [Chinese Defense Minister] General Liang Guanglie. That’s quite reassuring, (that) they’re open for a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” he said. With reports from Jerry E. Esplanada and Julie M. Aurelio

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