Scarborough Shoal according to Manila, Beijing

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Ownership of Scarborough Shoal depends on whose version of the story one believes

TWO STORIES. The Scarborough story begins with Kublai Khan for China, and with Spanish colonization for the Philippines.

MANILA, Philippines – One territory, 2 stories.

It is a place internationally known as Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines calls it Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc. China calls it Huangyan Island.

The 2 countries’ ongoing standoff over Scarborough Shoal has dragged their relationship “to its lowest ebb for years,” according to Chinese state media. 

Each country tells a different story about the disputed territory in position papers recently released to the public.

Since Yuan dynasty

For China, Scarborough Shoal’s story begins in year 1279 under its Yuan dynasty. That was around 240 years before the Philippines even had a written history.

YUAN DYNASTY. A survey of seas for Yuan emperor Kublai Khan begins Scarborough Shoal's history for China.

Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing then surveyed the seas around China for Yuan emperor Kublai Khan. Guo chose Scarborough or Huangyan Island “as the point (sic) in the South China Sea.”

China has since included Huangyan Island in its official maps, and in its provinces like Guangdong and later, Hainan. The country says it has also declared its sovereignty over Huangyan Island in all its announcements and statements on the South China Sea.

“All these happened long before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) came into force in 1994,” it notes, referring to the international convention governing maritime affairs. 

Scarborough Shoal is theirs, the mainland asserts, because it was China that first discovered it, named it, incorporated it into its territory, and exercised jurisdiction over it.

In addition, China says it has “long been developing and exploiting Huangyan Island,” explaining its fishermen consider the area traditional fishing grounds.

CHINESE BOATMEN. The Philippine-China standoff began after the Philippine Navy caught Chinese fishermen like Xu Detan (in photo) in Scarborough Shoal. Screen grab from

The Philippines never laid claim over Huangyan Island until 1997, China says.

International treaties like the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the country explains, do not include Huangyan Island in Philippine territory. Even Philippine maps in 1981 and 1984, among others, reportedly exclude Huangyan Island.

“The above facts fully prove that Huangyan Island is outside the scope of Philippine territory,” China says.

From Spanish map

Over 400 years after China discovered it, a different story of Scarborough Shoal begins to form in the Philippines.

One of the earliest and most accurate Philippine maps, published in 1734, depicts the now-disputed area as part of Zambales in the Philippines. Made by Spanish Jesuit priest Pedro Murillo Velarde, the map names the shoal Bajo de Masinloc.

MURILLO MAP. One of the first records of Scarborough Shoal in the Philippines comes from a map by a Jesuit priest. Screen grab from

The name, which came from Spanish colonizers, literally means “under Masinloc” – a province of Zambales. (Read more: 10 Scarborough Facts for Pinoys.)

Bajo de Masinloc later became a site of Philippine activities and has been the subject of certain laws. This, said the Philippines’ position paper, means the country “has exercised both effective occupation and effective jurisdiction over Bajo de Masinloc since its independence.”

The Philippine position paper enumerates activities like the installment of Philippine flags on Scarborough Shoal in 1965 and 1997; the construction of a lighthouse on one of the shoal’s islets in 1965; its use for defense purposes; and its classification as a regime of islands under the amended Archipelagic Baselines Law in 2009.

International law expert Harry Roque says 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.”

Effective occupation and jurisdiction refer to land, however, and are not covered by Unclos. Since the land of Bajo de Masinloc is merely composed of rocks, the more significant part of the Philippines’ claim, Roque explains, is the sea.

ROCKY SANDBAR. The Philippines and China fight over Scarborough Shoal due to its potential for natural resources, among other things.

The Philippines stresses its ownership of the waters within the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc covered by the country’s 200-nautical-mile (NM) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf.

Based on the Unclos, the EEZ is the area 200 NM from the country’s baselines or “edges” within which it has the sovereign rights to explore and exploit, and conserve and manage natural resources, among others.

Meanwhile, the continental shelf comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas 200 NM from the country’s baselines.

Bajo de Masinloc is 124 NM from the nearest coast of Luzon and 472 NM from the nearest coast of China. This means Bajo de Masinloc falls within the Philippines’ 200-NM EEZ and continental shelf.

“Bajo de Masinloc is an integral part of Philippine territory,” the Philippines says.

DISPUTE CONTINUES. How will the Philippines and China settle the issue?

Ongoing standoff

The standoff between the Philippines and China over alleged territorial incursions on Scarborough Shoal has gone on for over a week now. 

In one of the latest developments, China has rejected the Philippines’ invitation to bring the issue to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea – “the great equalizer,” as far as the Philippines is concerned. 

The Philippines and China have accused each other of aggravating tension in the area. The 2 countries, however, have repeatedly said they want to end this issue peacefully. –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email