Chinese congress in South China Sea city

MANILA, Philippines – In a move to display sovereignty over South China Sea territories, China is set to establish a legislative body in Sansha, the new prefectural-level city that includes areas claimed by the Philippines.

The Chinese province of Hainan, which administers Sansha, has approved a motion to prepare for Sansha's first people's congress, Chinese state media reported Wednesday, July 18.

Hainan ratified the motion Tuesday, July 17, even as the Philippines has protested the establishment of Sansha City. (Read: PH protests South China Sea 'city.')

This means Sansha City has now begun to build political power, experts told the Chinese media. The planned congress, along with the proposed Sansha military unit, aim to bolster China's claim over the disputed South China Sea. (Read: China eyes military in South China Sea 'city.')

Sansha, which China established in June, administers the 3 disputed island groups of Nansha (Spratly Islands), Xisha (Paracel Islands), and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank). It also covers the 3 island groups' surrounding waters.

The Philippines claims portions of the Spratly Islands while Macclesfield Bank includes Scarborough Shoal, the site of a 4-month standoff between the Philippines and China. (Read: South China Sea under new Chinese city.)

Proving ownership

Establishing a government in a territory is a means to prove its ownership.

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

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

International tribunals basically look for two elements in deciding disputes over title to territory, said international law expert Dr Suzette Suarez in a forum over the weekend.

Suarez, who used to work with the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos), identified the following factors: 

The Philippines, for its part, also has a municipality that covers the Spratlys – Kalayaan, which is under Palawan. The Palace early stressed this when asked about Sansha City.

In establishing its claim over Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines also cites government moves such as the installment of flags and other structures within the shoal, as well as its coverage in the 2009 Archipelagic Baselines Law.

The Philippines thus claims “both effective occupation and effective jurisdiction” over the area it calls Bajo de Masinloc. (Read: Scarborough Shoal according to Manila, Beijing.)

Effective occupation refers to “any evidence that there is a sovereign exercising its powers over the territory,” while effective jurisdiction refers to the “exercise of legal competence,” according to international law expert Harry Roque.

International law, however, makes a distinction between disputes over title to territory, and disputes over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Disputes over Unclos cover maritime issues, such as incursions in a country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). If the Philippine government confirms it, an example is the ongoing fishing activity of 30 Chinese vessels in the disputed Spratlys. (Read: 30 Chinese vessels arrive at Spratlys.) – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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