Thursday, January 13, 2011

Veteran diplomat asks: Where in the world is the Philippines?

One hundred twelve years after the Philippines declared itself an independent state, questions on the width and breadth of Philippine territory are still a subject of intense debate.

The latest book of distinguished diplomat Rodolfo C. Severino, “Where in the world is the Philippines? (Debating Its National Territory )" tackles this issue comprehensively, tracing the confusion to the colonial days when the world was divided between two maritime powers, Spain and Portugal, up to the present with countries delineating their territorial boundaries guided by the “veritable constitution of the world’s seas" — the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).


Severino’s book shows that despite several revisions and laws related to territory, the most basic question on the area of Philippine jurisdiction remains ambiguous. As a result, Severino said, “Philippine law-enforcement agencies have not been sure of what to allow and what to prohibit where, particularly by way of sea passage, overflight, fishing activities, and environmental protection."

He further added, “The protection of the resources in the purported Philippine EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) has been uncertain, inconsistent and ineffective. The Philippines has been unable to negotiate with neighbors on overlapping maritime jurisdictions on anything like a sound footing."

He explained that these have consequences on people’s lives and communities, such as “the integrity of the marine ecology, the ability to fish, the availability of energy resources, the capacity of the sea to sustain life in its many forms, the responsibility for search and rescue in case of maritime accidents, the safety and viability of coastal communities and so on. “

Severino, in his book, discusses the baseline law and two contentious subjects: the Sabah claim and the South China Sea. Although refraining from taking a stand on the Sabah issue, the arguments presented suggest the author’s bias towards dropping the Sabah claim.

Severino wrote: “The maintenance of the Philippine claim to parts of North Borneo remains a thorn in Philippine-Malaysian relations and hampers the operation of cooperative schemes involving Sabah, like the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), which ties together all of Brunei Darussalam, eastern Indonesia, East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), and Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan."

Since previous attempts to set up a consulate in Sabah were opposed because it had the effect of dropping the Sabah claim and, some legal minds say, violates the Constitution, Severino says this prevents the Philippine government from adequately extending assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos there.

“It also withholds from the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and/or the wider Sulu community whatever monetary compensation Malaysia offers in return for the withdrawal of the Philippine claim," he adds.

Severino also believes that “it is highly unlikely that the jurisdictional disputes in the South China Sea will be resolved anytime soon, if ever."

The claimants, he pointed out, consider the South China Sea as vital to their strategic interests. He explains: “Malaysia has to have some degree of control over the vast expanse of sea that separates—and connects—East and West Malaysia. Brunei Darussalam seeks to secure for itself jurisdiction over its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, which cuts right across Malaysia’s claimed EEZ, and the right to exploit the resources in them.

“The Philippines would feel threatened from the west if it did not push out the frontiers of its jurisdiction to its claimed Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal," he said. “China seeks control of the South China Sea in order to avoid being ‘contained,’ pressured or even attacked from the southeast, as it was in the past, and to increase Beijing’s influence on an important passageway for international trade…Vietnam would be hemmed in by Chinese power if it did not have a foothold on the South China Sea."

Severino also said that non-claimants including the United States, Japan and South Korea have a deep interest in peace and stability in the region of the South China Sea and in freedom of navigation on and overflight over that body of water.

Severino’s straightforward style makes easy reading of the complex territorial issue.

Former foreign secretary Roberto R. Romulo, chairman of the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation that co-published the book together with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said in his remarks at the recent book launching: “Those of us who know something about Philippine history and public affairs, know only too well how issues, long buried in the past, can unleash debates that are endless and exhausting."

He surmised that was really Severino’s intent in coming out with the book. “He means to waken public and national interest in an issue that has been consigned to the recesses of memory and the back-burners of government files," Romulo said.—VERA Files

VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true."

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