Latin America

PH: China reclamation ‘jeopardizing’ arbitration case

Paterno Esmaquel II
Turning Mabini Reef into an island can affect the Philippines' historic case against China, the Department of Foreign Affairs says

'JEOPARDIZING CASE.' The Philippines fears China is turning Mabini Reef into an island. This image dated Feb 25, 2014 shows ongoing reclamation activities. Photo courtesy of DFA

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines on Friday, May 16, said it fears the Chinese reclamation activities on Mabini (Johnson South) Reef is “jeopardizing” its historic case against China by turning the uninhabited rock into an island.

In a media briefing, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Charles Jose said the Philippines relayed this concern to China in its latest diplomatic protest, which China rejected.

The Philippines protested against China’s construction of a suspected military base on Mabini Reef, which is located in the Spratly Islands in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). (READ: PH: Spratlys ‘airstrip’ affirms case vs China)

He said the diplomatic protest, filed on April 4, stated “that what they are doing is jeopardizing our case, because what they’re doing will change the nature and character of that feature.”

“[This] will somehow have an implication on the panel that was constituted to decide objectively on this case,” Jose said.

He said classifying Mabini as an island, instead of a rock, will broaden its maritime entitlement to a 200-nautical mile (NM) exclusive economic zone (EEZ). “Hindi dapat baguhin ‘yung physical feature no’n,” he said. (They shouldn’t change its physical feature.)

‘Island’ tag favors China

In an interview with Rappler in 2012, maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal explained that the “island” tag can entitle China to a wider scope of waters.

This is likely why China insists on calling Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, another disputed area, as Huangyan Island. (READ: Why China calls it Huangyan Island)

DISPUTED AREA. China insists on calling Scarborough Shoal an island. File photo

The UNCLOS defines an island as “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.”

Based on UNCLOS and subject to certain conditions, an island or land territory is entitled to the following waters: 

  • a territorial sea of up to 12 nautical miles (NM), with such a sea defined by the UN as a “belt of sea adjacent to a State’s coast”;

  • a contiguous, or adjacent, zone of up to 24 NM from the State’s baselines or “edges” from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured;

  • an EEZ of up to 200 NM from the baselines, within which a State has the sovereign rights to explore and exploit, and conserve and manage natural resources, among others; and

  • a continental shelf comprising the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas 200 NM from the baselines

“If you want to maximize your land area as well as your water area, you would want as many islands as possible,” Batongbacal explained.

On the other hand, the UNCLOS says, “Rocks which cannot sustain habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”

On Friday, Jose said that aside from jeopardizing the Philippines’ case by changing the land features, the Chinese reclamation activities also violate a key regional declaration signed in 2002.

A non-binding agreement, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) states: “The parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features, and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”

Citing the DOC, the United States said the “militarization” of the Spratlys, as well as other disputed areas, will raise tensions in the region. –

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at