Saturday, July 10, 2021

Where exactly is the West Philippine Sea?

Map showing the West Philippine Sea (in heavy blue) which is contiguous with the South China Sea.

In general, South China Sea is that body of water west of the Philippines, a region bounded by the Philippines, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Centuries ago, Europeans sailed through this sea to access China and thus named it the South China Sea. It does not mean, however, that the sea belongs to China, just as the Indian Ocean does not belong to India. Like the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean got its name because Europeans sailed through that ocean to go to India.

Within the region known as South China Sea are islets, atolls, reefs, cays and other features. Countries around the region each have separate claims of ownership over these features, and these claims often overlap. One feature may have two or more claimants. Each of these claimants will have to contend with China, which is claiming ownership over all of the South China Sea and its features through its nine dash line policy.

In 2012, the late President Benigno Aquino III issued Administrative Order No. 29 which officially named the waters west of the Philippine archipelago and within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The Philippine EEZ was first established by the late President Ferdinand Marcos in 1978 through Presidential Decree 1599, which was consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), signed in 1982. Under the UNCLOS, a country bordered by water will have 200 nautical miles of waters from its shore as exclusive economic zone or EEZ. The Philippines, as with China, Vietnam and other claimants of features in the South China Sea, is a signatory of the UNCLOS.

The WPS is contiguous with the waters in the region bounded by the Philippines, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. It, however, consists only of the region covered by the Philippine EEZ. The South China Sea, on the other hand, continues to refer to that part of the sea outside of the Philippine EEZ (and the EEZ of the other countries) over which no country can claim dominion, much less assert ownership as part of their territory.

The South China Sea is just that sea known to European seafarers of the past as being south of China. It did not, and should not, mean that it belongs to China.


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