Sovereign Rights & Responsibilities in the West Philippine Sea

The Philippines has sovereign rights and responsibilities in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles from the country’s western baselines.

This has been a traditional fishing area for Filipino fishers for centuries. It is also a rich spawning area and immensely wealthy in marine biodiversity.

The area was included in the official map of Las Islas Filipinas prepared in 1734 by Fr. Pedro Murillo Velarde, SJ.

Spain ceded to the United States the entire archipelago in the Treaty of Paris of 1898, with the US paying Spain $20 million. The area was clarified to include the islands in the west like Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys in the Treaty of Washington of 1900, with the US paying an additional $100,000 to secure Spain’s signature.

Philippine explorer Tomas Cloma in the 1950s sailed extensively in the Spratlys, “discovering”
uninhabited islands, rocks and reefs. He turned over his “discoveries” to the national government. Vice President Carlos Garcia said in 1956 that due to “occupation” and “proximity” there were no reasons for these islands not to be under Philippine jurisdiction.

Kalayaan Island Group

In April 1972, the Kalayaan group of islands was incorporated into Palawan province. In 1974, the national government declared that “its location render(s) it strategically important to Philippine national security.” In 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Decree No. 1599 creating the Municipality of Kalayaan.

The country maintained forces in the second largest Spratly island, Pag-asa (36 hectares, second to Itu Aba, 45 hectares, occupied by the Taiwanese) as well as six other islands (Kota, Lawak, Likas, Panata, Parola and Patag), one reef (Rizal) and one shoal (Ayungin).

The Malampaya gas field was discovered in 1989, successfully appraised in 1992 and exploited
starting in 2001. Natural gas from the area powers about 40 percent of electricity in Luzon island or about 20 percent nationwide.


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – first proposed in 1973, approved in 1982 on condition that at least 60 states ratify it and became effective in 1994 with the ratification by 157 states, including the Philippines (1984) and China (1996) – altered the “Freedom of the Seas” regime of centuries past.

The DENR’s website on International Agreements on Environment and Natural Resources declares:

UNCLOS provides a comprehensive legal framework governing all activities and uses of the world’s seas and oceans. The Convention establishes general obligations for safeguarding the marine environment and protecting freedom of scientific research on the high seas. It defines the limits of territorial seas of countries from which they can explore and exploit marine resources. These are called Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ)… (An EEZ) can extend 200 miles from its baselines. Within the EEZ, a coastal state enjoys sovereign rights over its natural resources….”

If there is no coastal state that contests it, the EEZ may be extended up to 350 nautical miles, as happened in the (East) Philippine Sea. The Philippines filed a declaration which was accepted internationally without objections.

China grabbed Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1994-1995 and Scarborough Shoal from the
Philippines in 2012. The latter is also known as Panacot in the Velarde map or Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc. It is 119 nautical miles west of Zambales province and 550 nautical miles southeast of China’s Hainan Island.

The Arbitral Award

In defense of the country’s sovereign rights, President Noynoy Aquino caused the filing of a case against China. The UNCLOS Permanent Court of Arbitration issued its decision on 12 July 2016. Key points:

  • The UNCLOS PCA has jurisdiction over the matter.
  • China’s nine-dash line map has no historical basis.
  • Itu Aba in its natural state was not capable of supporting human habitation, hence cannot claim a 200 nautical mile EEZ.
  • The Philippines is entitled to a 200-nautical-mile EEZ measured from its baselines.

Three obligations flow from the country’s sovereign rights and responsibilities in the WPS:

  • Our fishers and our oil and gas consumers, distributors and producers must continue to
    benefit from exploiting our EEZ’s marine resources sustainably.
  • We must protect the marine environment as a responsibility to ourselves, the international community, the planet and generations to come.
  • We must assist in safeguarding freedom of navigation in the sea to the west of our EEZ.

Action Needed

How do we achieve all this in the face of aggressive expansionism by our neighbor to our northwest?

  • We must unite to protect what is ours. Our schools, mass media and social media must be one in explaining our sovereign rights and responsibilities.
  • We must protect our fishers and oil and gas consumers, distributors and producers.
  • We must further develop the Kalayaan Island Group as well as our oil and gas fields like Malampaya.
  • We must build up our Philippine Navy, Coast Guard and Marines and upgrade our Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, as we are an archipelago, a maritime country with more sea than land.
  • We must broaden our alliances in support of UNCLOS and the Arbitral Award as well as freedom of navigation in the high seas to the west of our EEZ.

But we must be clear about this: we are not against Chinoys. They are loyal Filipinos of Chinese
descent, not Chinese pretending to be Pinoys. Nor are we against China. Our conflict in the West Philippine Sea is but one aspect of our relationship. Commercial and other interactions should continue, but it would be treasonous to be timid about insisting on and acting to defend our sovereign rights and responsibilities.