GMA signs Baselines Bill into law, triggers China protest

Published by rudy Date posted on March 12, 2009

MANILA, Philippines – President Arroyo has signed the law defining Philippine territory, sparking protests from China over control of strategic South China Sea islands, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said yesterday.

“We are sending the message to the whole world that we are affirming our national sovereignty… our national interest as an independent country,” Ermita said.

China, which also claims sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, “strongly opposed” the signing of Republic Act 9522 known as the Philippine Baseline Act, which defines Philippine territorial waters and maintains the country’s claim over the disputed Spratly Islands (Kalayaan Island Group or KIG) in the South China Sea and Scarborough Shoal.

Vietnam, which also has long-running claims in the Spratlys, also opposed the move.

In a statement, the Chinese embassy in Manila said the inclusion of the Huangyan Island and some islands and reefs of Nansha Islands in the Baseline Act as Philippine territory is “illegal, invalid” and totally unacceptable to the Chinese government.

“The Chinese embassy hereby expresses strong opposition and solemn protest and reiterates that Huangyan Island and Nansha Islands have always been part of Chinese territory and that the People’s Republic of China has indisputable sovereignty over these islands and their adjacent waters,” the embassy said.

Ermita said Mrs. Arroyo signed the bill on Tuesday without fanfare as the law was just a “technical and clinical adjustment” on the country’s baselines to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that was adopted by the world body in 1982 and ratified by the Philippines in 1992.

The UN has asked the Philippines and other countries that signed the UNCLOS to submit the dimensions of their continental shelf by May 13. The convention, which came into force in 1994, defines the maritime limits of signatories.

Henry Bensurto, secretary-general of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs, said the Philippines passed the law not to reiterate its claims over the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal but to define the baseline used to determine its extended continental shelf.

He and Ermita downplayed the Chinese embassy’s fresh protest, saying the protests were expected and can be handled by the mechanisms in the Code of Conduct entered into by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China to peacefully resolve claims over the disputed islands.

“We should negotiate through peaceful means our claims because there are six claimants… but there’s agreement in the Code of Conduct on how to settle claims so we don’t resort to any force to settle (the dispute). We want to highlight that,” Ermita said.

“We’re mindful that we claim these islands… we’re also mindful of the definition of national interest that we’re not isolated and we interact with other nations. We have factored in that we are part of a community. We took into account the various agreements, including the Code of Conduct that was pushed by the Philippines,” Bensurto said.

“We’re hopeful other countries will understand that when we passed this law for the purpose of complying with UNCLOS, we were mindful of the ASEAN Declaration on the Code of Conduct.”

Under the new law, the KIG and Scarborough Shoal, which is just over a hundred nautical miles from Zambales, are not part of the territorial baselines but part of the country’s territory as a “regime of islands.”

Ermita said the new law amended two previous laws that were enacted prior to UNCLOS. The new baselines were necessary for the purpose of identifying the Philippines’ contiguous zone, territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and continental shelf.

Under the new law, 24 nautical miles from the baselines was the country’s territorial area, 200 miles from them would be the exclusive economic zone, and 350 nautical miles out would be the exclusive continental shelf.

Caught by surprise

Sources said Chinese diplomats were unaware that the bill was already signed into law when they accompanied Ambassador Liu Jianchao, former spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to Malacañang yesterday for the presentation of his credentials.

After Congress passed the legislation last month, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Guangya summoned a Philippine embassy official in Beijing and said Manila’s claims over the two regions “were illegal and invalid,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said.

It cited Wang as saying the Philippines should take into consideration bilateral relations as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Vietnam also urged the Philippines to refrain from taking action that might complicate the dispute.

The Spratlys, believed to be rich in oil, gas and fish, consist of about 100 barren islets, reefs and atolls dotting the world’s busiest shipping lanes in the South China Sea.

Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei each claim all or part of the low-lying islands. – With AP

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