South China Sea under new Chinese city

(UPDATED) MANILA, Philippines – China has strengthened its claim over South China Sea islands after it broadened the scope and powers of the government unit covering disputed territories such as Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys.

On Thursday, June 21, China established Sansha, a prefectural-level city that administers the 3 disputed island groups of Nansha (Spratly Islands), Xisha (Paracel Islands), and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank). The new city 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 2-month standoff between the Philippines and China. 

Previously, China placed Nansha, Xisha, and Zhongsha under a county-level administrative office.

In a press briefing Friday, June 22, deputy presidential spokesperson Usec Abigail Valte said the Department of Foreign Affairs is tasked to comment on this matter. Valte, however, noted the Philippine government's presence in the Spratlys.

"As you know we have a municipality in that particular area, under Palawan – Kalayaan,” Valte said.

Wider powers

Under China's political system, prefectural-level cities administer counties and county-level cities. They also direct the economic, cultural, and administrative functions of local governments within their jurisdiction.

Sansha's prefectural-level status will “help improve China's 'administrative management (over) Xisha, Zhongsha, and Nansha islands and their future development,” said China's Ministry of Civil Affairs.

“It is also conducive to protecting the oceanic environment of the South China Sea,” the ministry added.

China did this amid its protests over Vietnam's amended maritime law that includes the Spratly and Paracel Islands in Vietnamese territory.

“China strongly protests and firmly opposes such a move by Vietnam,” said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun. “Vietnam's action is illegal, invalid and detrimental to peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

China then summoned Vietnam's ambassador to China, Nguyen Van Tho, to explain the Vietnamese side.

Vietnam, for its part, on Friday slammed China's protest as absurd. It also "strongly" opposes China's creation of Sansha City, said Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Luong Thanh Nghi. (Read: Vietnam slams 'absurd' China protest over islands.)

Effective jurisdiction

Laws implemented over a territory, such as the new Chinese directive, indicate effective jurisdiction. This means an “exercise of legal competence” and is one of the criteria for determining ownership of a territory, according to international law expert Harry Roque.

Another criterion is effective occupation, which Roque describes as “any evidence that there is a sovereign exercising its powers over the territory.”

CHINESE PRESENCE. Over the past decades, China has conducted surveys in Scarborough Shoal, which is supposedly proof of its effective occupation of the area. File photo courtesy of the Chinese embassy in the Philippines

CHINESE PRESENCE. Over the past decades, China has conducted surveys in Scarborough Shoal, which is supposedly proof of its effective occupation of the area.

File photo courtesy of the Chinese embassy in the Philippines

In the case of Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines claims effective occupation of and effective jurisdiction over the area since the country gained its independence. (Read: Scarborough according to Manila, Beijing.) 

One of the Philippines' evidence for claiming Scarborough Shoal is its 2009 Baselines Law, which includes the shoal as well as parts of the Spratlys in Philippine territory. The law treats these as a “regime of islands under the Republic of the Philippines.”

The Baselines Law became controversial, with a group of University of the Philippines law professors petitioning the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional. The group explained it results in the loss of 15,000 square nautical miles of territorial waters.

The SC later junked the request and declared the Baselines Law constitutional. (More: 10 Scarborough facts for Pinoys.)  

Evidence vs China

Observers have urged the Philippine government to present such evidence against China before an international court, to prove the Philippines' claim over Scarborough Shoal.

China, however, has repeatedly rejected bringing territorial disputes before an international court. Instead, it prefers bilateral or one-on-one negotiations with other claimant countries.

Initially, President Benigno Aquino III said the Philippines should drum up international support in its dispute with China, calling it the country's “best weapon.” Earlier this month, however, Aquino changed his tune. He said the Philippines can show “goodwill” to China by not bringing the issue to international attention. (Read: PNoy: Leave PH, China alone to settle dispute.) — Rappler.com

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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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