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Manila backs Senate bill to officially rename contested waters ‘West Philippine Sea’

The Philippine foreign office said Thursday it was backing legislative efforts to formally rename the country’s portions of the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea,” in a move to bolster Manila’s territorial claims in the contested waterway.

On Wednesday, Sen. Francis Tolentino announced he had filed Senate Bill 405, a proposed piece of legislation that aims to “institutionalize” the use of “ the West Philippine Sea” as the official name of territories claimed by the Philippines in waters that China and other neighbors also contest.

The air space, seabed, and subsoil on the western side of the Philippine archipelago would be renamed “to reinforce the Philippines’ claim to the disputed territories found on the western side of the archipelago,” according to an excerpt from SB405.

Maria Teresita Daza, spokeswoman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said Tolentino’s bill was consistent with a 2016 international arbitration court’s ruling that sided with Manila.

“The West Philippine Sea was already actually defined in 2012 through Administrative Order 29,” Daza told a press briefing on Thursday.

“Nevertheless, the department recognizes what the process of legislation can do in terms of clarity and institution building. And we look forward to supporting the process, should we be invited to do so,” she said.

Tolentino’s bill covers waters around, within, and adjacent to the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal, as well as the Luzon Sea, or waters also known as the Luzon Strait between the northern Philippine island of Luzon and Taiwan.

The Philippine senator said that the proposed legislation came about in response to the “archipelagic doctrine” embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Under it, the Philippines is granted a territorial sea of up to 12 nautical miles, a contiguous zone of up to 24 nautical miles, and an exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles where the West Philippine Sea is located.

The bill also directs government offices to use the name in all communications, messages, and public documents, and “to popularize the use of such [a] name with the general public, both domestically and internationally.”

Six years ago, the Philippines won an arbitral award against Beijing before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The landmark ruling nullified China’s expansive claims to the sea region, including in waters that reach neighbors’ shores.

Manila had filed the case in 2012, when the Chinese occupied areas near Scarborough Shoal, a triangular chain of rocks and reefs that Filipinos consider a traditional fishing ground.

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim parts of the sea. China, for its part, draws a nine-dash line to delineate its claim of “historical rights” to almost 90 percent of the waterway. The line also overlaps with the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of another nation – Indonesia.

And while the name “South China Sea” has gained near universal acceptance in usage, countries that have claims to the disputed waters have their own different names for it. Vietnam calls the maritime region “the East Sea,” and, to Beijing, it is plainly known as “the South Sea.”

In 2017, Indonesia renamed a resource-rich northern region around its Natuna Islands, which lie off the southern end of the South China Sea, as the North Natuna Sea. The waters near the Natunas have seen some tense standoffs in recent years between Indonesian ships and ships from China and other nations, including Chinese coast guard vessels.

Jakarta’s decision to change the name of the sea region north of the islands was spurred by the arbitration court’s ruling in Manila’s favor the year before that nullified China’s historical claim to the entire South China Sea through the nine-dash line, Arif Havas Oegroseno, then the deputy of maritime sovereignty at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs, told reporters at the time.

Since the arbitration court ruled for Manila in 2016, Beijing has refused to budge from the area around Scarborough Shoal. On Thursday, officials at the Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to BenarNews efforts seeking comment on the Philippine bill.

The proposed formal name change is a far cry from the policy on the disputed waters implemented by former President Rodrigo Duterte, who did not seek to enforce the ruling when he took office in 2016, but instead pursued warmer ties with Beijing.

During his six-year term, Duterte, who left office on June 30, also pulled the Philippines away from the United States, the Philippines’ longtime ally and China’s main rival, until later in his term when he declared that the arbitration award was “beyond compromise.” 

The U.S. government, meanwhile, has insisted on the doctrine of freedom of navigation and has sailed its navy ships into the contested waters.

Duterte’s successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in his first “state of the nation” address to Congress last month, declared he would not preside over any process that would give away “even one square inch of territory” to foreign rivals.

Marcos’ newly appointed military chief, Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro, told his generals and other military officials during his first command conference on Wednesday that the armed forces supported President Marcos’ pronouncement.

“We only do what is required of us to do and what is important is we are able to perform our mandate to protect (the state and) our people,” Col. Medel Aguilar, a spokesman for the military, told reporters. 

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.