PH town ‘no match’ vs China’s Sansha City

One of the poorest Philippine towns faces a better-funded, more politically complex Chinese city in the disputed South China Sea

FACING CHINA. A kindergarten school is the newest major structure built in Kalayaan, one of the poorest Philippine towns that is likely to clash with a new Chinese city. Photo from AFP/Office of the Kalayaan Mayor

MANILA, Philippines – One of the Philippines’ poorest municipalities, Kalayaan in Palawan, is facing off with China’s new Sansha City that governs the disputed South China Sea.

In a phone interview with Rappler, Kalayaan Mayor Eduardo Bito-onon said his town is “no match” to China’s new prefectural-level city that will soon elect its congress.

Sansha City includes areas claimed by the Philippines, such as portions of the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal.

Napakalayo… Fifth class lang ang municipality ng Kalayaan. ‘Yung kanilang island, ang budget noon, city,” Bito-onon said. (We lag behind… The municipality of Kalayaan is fifth class. Their island has the budget of a city.)

Bito-onon said Kalayaan town, which is part of the disputed Spratlys, thrives on an annual Internal Revenue Allotment of P37-M that covers government salaries, among other things. It also receives an P8-M annual development fund for basic services.

The budget is big – if only the town’s population is to be factored in. Its population is 114, based on the latest government statistics.

It is, however, also of strategic importance to the Philippines, given China’s show of force in the South China Sea. 

‘No support’

China is fortifying Sansha, which, as a lower-level government unit in the past, had already received comparatively huge amounts. Beginning as a county-level administration office in 1959, the city has had enough money to build hotels, a supermarket, restaurants, an insurance company, and even 3G spots.

NEW CITY. The prefectural-level Sansha City, which is stationed on Paracel Islands, governs contested portions of the South China Sea. Photo from the Chinese embassy

In February alone, Sansha spent 2.2-M yuan or P14.3-M – roughly a third of Kalayaan’s annual budget – to build diesel oil power regulators.

Bito-onon said Kalayaan town, on the other hand, has a dilapidated airstrip, a 5-bed lying-in clinic, and a small kindergarten school. He said it lacks funds to build supposed essentials like a sheltered harbor, for livelihood and tourism, that could cost P300-M.

Eh halos wala naman tayong makuha sa national government na infrastructure, support,” the mayor said. (We do not get enough from the national government in terms of infrastructure, support.)

Ang pinanghahawakan natin,” Bito-onon said, “lakas ng loob.” (What we hold on to is fortitude.)

Complex structure

Funding is not the only challenge facing Kalayaan. The political structure of Sansha is also more complex, an indication of power over the disputed islands.

Such “intentional display of power and authority over the territory” is a means to prove its ownership, said international law expert Dr Suzette Suarez in a forum over the weekend. In addition to this is a “continuous and peaceful” exercise of jurisdiction and state functions. (Watch part of Rappler’s interview with Suarez below.)

Suarez, however, told Rappler political structure is only one of the factors in claiming ownership. “It’s not going to be the only decisive factor… It depends on the state, how you argue the case,” she said.

Suarez, who used to work with the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, cited decisions that are not solely based on complex political structures. One such case is the Sovereignty over Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan, in which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) favored Malaysia over Indonesia.

In this case, Malaysia presented evidence on government’s simple intervention in everyday life: 

  • “measures taken by the North Borneo authorities to regulate and control the collecting of turtle eggs on Ligitan and Sipadan, an activity of some economic significance in the area at the time,” based on the Turtle Preservation Ordinance of 1917; and

  • North Borneo’s construction of a lighthouse on Sipadan in 1962 and another on Ligitan in 1963, as well as their maintenance by Malaysian authorities

“The activities relied upon by Malaysia… are modest in number but… they are diverse in character and include legislative, administrative, and quasi-judicial acts. They cover a considerable period of time and show a pattern revealing an intention to exercise state functions in respect of the two islands in the context of the administration of a wider range of islands,” the ICJ explained.

GOVERNMENT SEAT. Sansha City's top government office is found on a South China Sea island called Yongxing. File photo from

Infrastructure, thus, can also help Kalayaan. For one, Suarez said the establishment of a kindergarten school in the town, among other structures, can bolster the Philippines’ claim. “May local population… Meron na siyang semblance of regular community life,” she said. (It has a local population… It has a semblance of regular community life.)

In claiming Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines has also cited evidence of effective occupation and jurisdiction, such as the installation of Philippine flags and the construction of a lighthouse. The town of Masinloc, Zambales has jurisdiction over it, says the Philippines.

This is a key in claiming territory, according to experts: for government to assert its presence. –


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