Commentary: Our country’s shifting Spratlys position

A NEWS report by The Guardian on July 27, 1971 (“Islands of contention”) reveals a stark difference between the position of the Philippines on the Spratly Islands during that time and its stance today.

Writing from Manila, esteemed war correspondent Jack Foisie underscored the difference between the position of the Philippines, People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and the two Vietnams. While other claimants argued that the Spratly Islands belong to them since time immemorial, the Philippines stressed that the islands belonged to no one.

Two weeks before Foisie’s article, a diplomatic incident happened between Taiwan and the Philippines. Rep. Ramon Mitra claimed that he was “fired on” while “peacefully fishing” near Itu Aba, the largest island in the Spratlys, militarily occupied by Taiwan.

President Ferdinand Marcos protested against the occupation and demanded that Taiwan leave Itu Aba. However, he didn’t do so because he thought that the Spratly Islands belonged to the Philippines.

Invoking the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Marcos argued that the archipelago must be considered as “trust territories” of the allied nations that won against Japan during World War 2. By virtue of the peace treaty between Japan and the Allied powers, the former renounced claim to several islands which include the Spratlys. However, the treaty didn’t indicate to whom they should be given.

Among the diplomatic cables Wikileaks released was the 1971 aide memoire on the Spratly Islands that Secretary of Foreign Affairs Carlos Romulo sent to the US Embassy in Manila. Paragraph 5 expounds on the position of that Philippines:

“In 1957, we affirmed that the Spratley Island Group falls under the de facto trusteeship of the Allied Powers by virtue [of the]Japanese Peace Treaty signed and concluded in San Francisco on September 8, 1951, whereby Japan renounced all her rights, title and claim to these islands. By virtue of that trusteeship no one may introduce troops on any of these islands without the permission and consent of the allied powers. Our position on this matter remains firm.”

Responding to Marcos’ pronouncements, Foisie noted that the British and Dutch governments instructed their ambassadors to inform the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they were not interested in “administering the Spratlys,” even though they were part of the allied nations.

Marcos’ belief that the islands belonged to no one, of course, didn’t stop him from militarily occupying the islands (without the consent of other claimants and the Allied Powers) and from issuing presidential decrees that renamed (as Kalayaan) and annexed them, to the surprise of other claimants.

There was even a moment that the Philippines had to deny that it occupied another feature in the Spratly Islands. As Robert Whymant reported in The Guardian, on March 2, 1978, “Philippine marines moved into the seventh island, Panata.” And during the visit of Chinese Vice Premier Li Hsien-Nien to Manila on March 17, 1978, Marcos denied that the island was just newly seized. Marcos backdated the occupation because it puts the country in an “embarrassing situation,” Whymant observed.

A news report by The Guardian on May 3, 1978, quoted a military source in the Philippines who explained the Panata seizure: “We are moving in because we do not want to wake up and find the Vietnamese on the island.” The news report also mentioned that military sources see “the Philippine buildup as the only way to check Vietnamese control spreading over the area.”

But of course, the Philippines failed to do that. To this date, Vietnam is still the preponderant power in the Spratlys. On May 13, 2015, then US Assistant Secretary of Defense, David Shear, noted this in his report to the Senate committee on foreign relations: “Vietnam has 48 outposts; the Philippines, 8; China, 8;Malaysia, 5, and Taiwan, 1.” It’s amazing that our country doesn’t seem to mind Vietnam’s activities in the Spratlys anymore, given that in the 1970s, it was its expansion in the area that we feared.

Another remarkable observation Foisie noted is how “Filipino lawmakers and Manila newspapers” made the “neutrality” of the islands a “patriotic issue.” This is entirely different from how Filipino lawmakers and the Philippine media talk about the islands today. The islands no longer belonged to no one but to the Philippines. Philippine ownership rather than the neutrality of the islands is now the tune of Filipino patriotism.

(Published in The Manila Times on 8 February 2018)

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