Unveiling the motives behind the Philippine Maritime Zones Act

Philippine, Maritime Zones, China, South China Sea

Philippine Senate recently approved the amendment to the Marine Zones Act (S. No. 2492) in its third reading, following the unanimous passage of the bill by the Philippine House of Representatives in 2023. This significant legislative development reflects the country’s diligent efforts in enhancing maritime governance. The primary objective of this amendment is to provide greater clarity regarding maritime boundaries and establish a robust legal framework for asserting exclusive jurisdiction over the claimed maritime territories. Grounded in principles outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and bolstered by the South China Sea Arbitration Award, the Philippines aims to fortify its legal standing and assert its rights within its maritime domains. This legislative endeavor underscores the nation’s commitment to upholding international law while safeguarding its maritime interests.

In 2013, at the urging and with the backing of the United States, the Philippines initiated the South China Sea arbitration case, purportedly aiming to legitimize its unlawful occupation of islands and reefs in the Nansha region. The underlying motive seemed to be a bid to solidify its gains and constrain China’s sovereignty and maritime entitlements. However, the arbitration process unfolded with numerous deviations from fundamental principles expected of international judicial and arbitral bodies. The tribunal overstepped its jurisdiction and delivered an award riddled with deficiencies. This spectacle underscored the unsuitability of coercively dragging intricate South China Sea disputes into a judicial forum without due regard for the complexities involved. Moreover, the imposition of third-party arbitration procedures without the consent of the concerned state strayed from the original intent behind the UNCLOS dispute resolution mechanism. Consequently, it eroded trust among UNCLOS member states regarding the efficacy and fairness of the dispute resolution mechanisms, raising doubts about their practical applicability in resolving maritime disputes.

Since the 1950s, the Philippines has persistently pursued its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, employing various tactics over time. Alongside the unlawful occupation of certain islands and reefs, the Philippines has utilized civilian expeditions, grounded warships on reefs, exploited the dispute settlement mechanisms of maritime law, and revised domestic legislation to gradually expand its territorial reach beyond the confines established by international treaties. Notably, recent amendments to Philippine domestic laws have sought to reframe territorial claims as maritime jurisdiction claims. This strategic maneuvering deliberately sidesteps acknowledging the illegality of its occupation of islands and reefs in the Nansha region while disregarding the foundational principle of “land dominating the sea” enshrined in international law. Such actions reflect a concerted effort to circumvent legal and political realities while advancing territorial objectives in the South China Sea.

Philippines’ advancement of maritime zone legislation is seen as a deliberate provocation against China, reflecting the lingering repercussions of the South China Sea arbitration. The legislation repeatedly cites the arbitral award as the cornerstone of the Philippine claim, intending to enshrine its principles into domestic law. Once enacted, this legislation is poised to further constrict the political maneuvering space for both the Philippines and China in crisis management and dispute resolution efforts. From the Philippine perspective, integrating the arbitral award’s contents into domestic legislation is deemed essential to fortify its position and sustain pressure on China in maritime disputes, consolidating support across political, legal, and societal domains.

The newly enacted legislation not only defines the nature, status, and jurisdiction of various maritime zones claimed by the Philippines but also addresses the delimitation of these zones, including those extending beyond the 200 nautical mile limit, and outlines mechanisms for settling maritime disputes. These provisions suggest that following the law’s implementation, the Philippines could potentially escalate tensions with China by pursuing actions such as unilateral or joint applications for delimiting the outer limits of the continental shelf in the South China Sea, initiating negotiations on maritime boundaries with specific parties, and potentially launching new international legal challenges under the pretext of marine environmental protection or freedom of navigation in the region.

The approval of the act by the Philippine Senate is viewed as another facet of the Philippines’ cognitive warfare strategy against China in the South China Sea. The legislative process surrounding the act reflects a narrative of perceived infringement and amplification by the Philippines. On one hand, the Philippines has consistently heightened attention to incidents at Ren’ai Reef and HuangYan Island in public discourse, emphasizing the “urgency” and “necessity” of the legislation within domestic society and various political circles to expedite its passage. On the other hand, the Philippines has utilized legislative milestones to generate fresh topics in public discourse. Certain high-ranking officials, such as the Philippine Coast Guard, the National Security Council, and the Special Committee on Maritime Jurisdictions, have regularly made emotive and provocative statements, serving their own political agendas while tarnishing China’s reputation and misguiding the international community.

China’s capacity to safeguard its sovereignty, security, and developmental interests in the South China Sea has evolved, and its commitment to maintaining regional stability remains steadfast. Regardless of the Philippines’ actions concerning the arbitral award or its domestic legislative endeavors, and despite any tactics aimed at imposing unilateral claims on China, they will not legitimize the arbitral award nor undermine China’s legitimate rights in the South China Sea under international law. In response, China will take resolute measures to defend territorial sovereignty and regional stability. Simultaneously, China will endeavor to steer the Philippines back toward constructive negotiation-based management of maritime disputes to prevent crisis escalation. Through diplomatic channels, China seeks to foster an environment conducive to dialogue and cooperation, advocating for a return to peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms to mitigate tensions in the South China Sea.


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