'West PH Sea' now official: so what?

MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III has ordered the official use of “West Philippine Sea” to refer to maritime areas surrounding territories claimed by the Philippines, such as the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal.

While the Philippine government has actively used “West Philippine Sea” instead of “South China Sea” for over a year, Aquino issued the first administrative order (AO) authorizing this new name only last September 5. The Palace released the AO on Wednesday, September 12, in a move to popularize the name and eventually urge the world adopt it.

The AO covers areas “around, within, and adjacent to” the Spratlys (Kalayaan Island Group) and Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc), territories also claimed by China and other Southeast Asian countries.

Through the AO, Aquino directed the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (Namria) to publish charts and maps reflecting the name West Philippine Sea. He said government agencies and schools should use this name as much as possible.

The President also opened the possibility of West Philippine Sea becoming an internationally accepted name.

He ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs to submit, “at the appropriate time,” the AO along with a revised Philippine map to the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), the global authority in ensuring “the greatest possible uniformity in nautical charts and documents.” He also urged the DFA to submit these documents to the United Nations (UN) secretary-general and the UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names.

To be sure, this does not settle the Philippines' maritime dispute with China, which may be done within frameworks provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Aquino, however, said the new AO could bolster the Philippines' claim.

“Does it help our cause? It is important that we clarify the portions we claim,” Aquino told reporters in Filipino, noting that China claims practically the whole South China Sea.

New battleground?

Naming a sea, however, is also a contentious issue for various countries.

Japan and South Korea, for example, have contested the name for what is internationally known as the Sea of Japan. South Korea reportedly calls the international name “colonialist,” and wants the body of water to be called East Sea.

In its meeting last April, the IHO said it still recognizes the name Sea of Japan. This is reflected in the IHO's definitive document, “The Limits of Oceans and Seas,” that was last updated in 1953. The IHO will take up the two countries' naming dispute in its next meeting in 2017.

A major factor in determining international names, according to experts, is common usage. Establishing this takes time, with names having to be widely used in international papers as well.

As in the case of the Sea of Japan, the IHO's Limits of Oceans and Seas document has only recognized the name South China Sea. Aquino's new AO is seen as a means to boost the common usage of the name West Philippine Sea.

The AO, however, is executive in nature and may be rescinded any time. In a Newsbreak piece in 2011, security studies expert Rommel Banlaoi said a law is needed to define the West Philippine Sea. Otherwise, the name “is still utterly devoid of legal meaning.”

“Unless we pass a Philippine maritime zone law that can describe the extent of West Philippine Sea pursuant to UNCLOS and applicable international laws, the term West Philippine Sea will remain an empty label that could not withstand the harsh reality of international politics,” Banlaoi said.

Making formal claims over disputed territories is a different matter, however. Manila has yet to file a case before an international court over the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal, even as its new “West Philippine Sea” complicates its territorial row with Beijing. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. 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 pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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