What’s in a name? In territorial disputes, probably the next best weapon you can deploy, especially if you lack warships.
Malacañang seems bent on playing the name game to assert Philippine sovereignty over disputed areas west of the archipelago, this time concerning an island some 100 kilometers off Palawan province.
Days after presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda started referring to the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea” in official statements, the Palace aide on Monday spoke of the “Recto Bank,” which he said was the “proper” name of a spot otherwise marked on most international maps as Reed Bank.
“The administration has always asserted that it will dismiss out of hand any claim to what are considered integral parts of the Philippine territory such as Recto Bank in western Palawan,” Lacierda said in a media briefing.
Until Lacierda mentioned it, the Reed Bank was hardly known to be named in honor of the late senator and eminent Filipino nationalist Claro M. Recto.
The Philippines earlier this year filed a diplomatic protest against China after two Chinese ships reportedly harassed a vessel contracted by the government to undertake oil exploration efforts in the bank.
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Lacierda made the remark as part of yet another Philippine appeal for a peaceful resolution of revived tensions over the Spratlys group of islands, an area wholly or partly claimed by six nations, including the Philippines and China.
He dismissed speculations that assigning Philippine names to contested areas—or giving them emphasis in official pronouncements—would only raise rather than ease tension among claimant countries.
“I think the emphasis is on the peaceful resolution,” he said. “Calling Reed Bank Recto Bank is just proper for us. We have always considered, again, that Reed Bank is part of our territory. We do not see this as a statement that would inflame the situation.”
Not to inflame China
“It’s just a matter of taking the cue from the (Department of Foreign Affairs),” Lacierda said to explain why Malacañang was making the name change only now.
“There was no intentional reason to inflame the Chinese,” he said.
“It’s just that, you know, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of National Defense in their briefings in the meetings of the security cluster have been using West Philippine Sea so we decided to take the cue from this and just use it,” he explained.
Lacierda noted that while China referred to South China Sea as South Sea, Vietnam—another Spratlys claimant—calls the same waters East Sea.
“We’re looking in from our perspective. We are calling it West Philippine Sea based on how we describe it and it’s the same matter that goes on with other nations as well,” Lacierda said.
Zambales pitches in
In a related development, a provincial government in Luzon has done its share in claiming another disputed territory in behalf of the country.
Zambales Vice Gov. Ramon Lacbain II said the provincial board on June 6 endorsed the claim of Masinloc town over the Scarborough Shoal, locally known as “Bajo de Masinloc,” to “strengthen the claim of the Philippines on that area.”
Masinloc’s claim was contained in Resolution No. 62-11, approved by the town council on March 16. The town mayor, Desiree Edora, signed the resolution.
Lacbain said the dispute over the Spratly Islands had prompted Masinloc to assert its claim over the area because, “after all, if that area belongs to the Philippines, then it must be part of some province, or a town.”
“In this case, that area belongs to Zambales, and the town of Masinloc,” Lacbain said.
He explained that because of the continuing dispute over the Spratly Islands, “the boundary for Masinloc right now is San Salvador Islands, which is just 15 km away the town.”
Lacbain said Scarborough Shoal is about 200 km from Masinloc. “[And under] Republic Act No. 9522, all the waters from the town to that area are owned by the Philippines, in particular, the province of Zambales,” he said.
Lacbain said Masinloc had a “historic claim” to the area, which was cited in RA 9522, the law defining the archipelagic baseline of the Philippines.
The resolution described the shoal as “a triangle-shaped chain of reefs and islands… with an area of 150 km. It has a lagoon with [an] area of 130 square km and depth of about 15 meters.”
It said many of the reefs were “just below water at high tide, while near the mouth of the lagoon are ruins of an iron tower, 8.3 meters high.”
Lacbain said it was important for the Philippine government to assert its claim over Scarborough “because there might be a large deposit of oil and minerals in those areas” which can be of benefit to Zambales residents.