Rodrigo Duterte

Why China calls it Huangyan Island

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

China's insistence that Scarborough Shoal is an island can widen the scope of their territorial claim

SCARBOROUGH SHOAL. China insists on calling Scarborough Shoal an island.

MANILA, Philippines – No, it’s not a simple difference in usage.

China gives the name Huangyan Island to the disputed Scarborough Shoal due to reasons that can benefit it in its territorial claims, said marine law expert Jay Batongbacal.

A University of the Philippines professor, Batongbacal joined a panel of experts Friday, April 27, in a Senate foreign affairs committee hearing on the Scarborough Shoal standoff.

In an interview with Rappler after the hearing, Batongbacal identified two main reasons why China calls the disputed area Huangyan Island. (The Philippines, on the other hand, calls it Bajo de Masinloc. Read: Scarborough Shoal according to Manila, Beijing.)

‘More advantageous’

First, he said, China usually makes no distinctions between islands that are above the water, and features that are underwater. Their definition of an island is therefore wider.

He said the Chinese consider Scarborough Shoal as part of what they call the Zhongsha Islands or Archipelago. “But if you look at their maps, what is Zhongsha Islands? Most of it is underwater… Actually only Bajo de Masinloc has anything that is above water at high tide,” Batongbacal said.

Second, to call Scarborough Shoal an island is the “more advantageous” position for China.

The “island” tag can entitle it to a wider scope of waters, Batongbacal said.

Based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and subject to certain conditions, an island or land territory is entitled to the following waters: 

  • a territorial sea of up to 12 nautical miles (NM), with such a sea defined by the UN as a “belt of sea adjacent to a State’s coast;”

  • a contiguous, or adjacent, zone of up to 24 NM from the State’s baselines or “edges” from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured;

  • an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of up to 200 NM from the baselines, within which a State has the sovereign rights to explore and exploit, and conserve and manage natural resources, among others; and

  • a continental shelf comprising the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas 200 NM from the baselines

“If you want to maximize your land area as well as your water area, you would want as many islands as possible,” Batongbacal explained.

The Unclos, however, makes a reservation. “Rocks which cannot sustain habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf,” the Unclos says.

Island vs shoal

The UN defines an island as a “naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.”

A shoal, on the other hand, is basically a rocky sandbar. (Read: 10 Scarborough Facts for Pinoys.)

In its position paper on Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines asserts that the disputed area is not an island, but a ring-shaped coral reef with several rocks encircling a lagoon.

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

Like the Philippines, a number of foreign scholars have disputed the claim that Scarborough Shoal, or what is also called Scarborough Reef, is part of Zhongsha Islands.

Their position is based on possibly varying interpretations of the Chinese term for the area, “Zhongsha Qundao,” said the National University of Singapore’s Zou Keyuan.

“As a result, care should be exercised in the use of the names of islands in the South China Sea,” Zou said.

Contentious points

Even the Unclos provision against EEZs for rocks that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own, according to Zou, has some complications.

The Unclos does not give the exact meaning of “rocks,” “human habitation,” and “economic life of their own,” leading to different interpretations, Zou said.

“Some scholars suggest that only islands which have shown the ability to sustain stable human populations of at least 50 people should be allowed to generate maritime zones,” Zou wrote. “Under such a suggestion, Scarborough Reef clearly lacks the capability to have its own extended maritime zones including an EEZ because of its size at high tide and lack of permanent inhabitants.”

“On the other hand,” Zou said, “it should be realized that due to the ambiguity in the expressions of the above-mentioned (Unclos) provision, it could be argued that islets like Scarborough Reef may have the capability to generate their own maritime zones including an EEZ.”

This is one of the contentious points for the Philippines and China, the scholar said.

Muddling the issue, too, is “China’s refusal to define its claim to the waters in the South China Sea,” said top diplomat Rodolfo Severino in a Thought Leaders piece for Rappler.

Nonetheless, experts agree the Philippines and China should settle their differences – in defining their claims or in other concerns – diplomatically. –

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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