By Michaela P. del Callar
The Daily Tribune
The United States government had cited corruption as a key factor behind the Philippines’ weak position in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea during the Arroyo administration.
An Aug. 1, 2008 confidential US Em-bassy report released by online whistle-blower WikiLeaks took note of allegations that the Arroyo government had agreed to a joint maritime seismic undertaking (JMSU) deal with China in exchange for bribe-tainted loans.
The inclusion of Reed Bank and a large portion of Philippine waters in the coverage area of exploration under the JMSU emboldened China to assert control over the territories long claimed by Manila.
It also cited the former government’s attempts to get Congress
to back off on inclusion of the Spratlys in the Philippine baselines, a position “similarly motivated by illicit Chinese influence.”
“There is widespread suspicion that corruption may influence Philippine policy,” the cable said.
The South China Sea — an international waterway where more than 50 percent of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage passes each year – had been a source of conflict among claimants China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The territorial disputes have also drawn in the US, a key defense and security ally of the Philippines, saying it has vital national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the waters believed to be rich in oil and natural gas and coveted for its rich fishing grounds.
In previous months, the Philippines and Vietnam traded diplomatic protests and verbal barbs with China over allegations of incursions, sabotaging oil exploration and harassing fishermen within both countries’ territories in the Spratlys.
China, which maintained historical claim over the entire South China Sea, has ignored the protests and even warned claimants against conducting oil exploration in the area referred to by the Philippines as West Philippine Sea.
“Fearing that the inclusion of the Spratlys in Philippine territorial baselines would provoke China, inflame tensions in the South China Sea, and upset the delicate status quo, the Arroyo administration pursued a third approach, pressing Congress to revisit the baselines issue and include only the main archipelago, leaving the Spratlys and Scarborough classed as ‘regimes of islands,’” the cable said.
In March 2009, Arroyo signed into law Republic Act 9522 or the baseline act which reaffirms the country’s claim over the more than 7,100 islands in its archipelago, including outlying territories in the disputed Spratlys. The law treats Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal, two of the country’s claimed territories in the Spratlys, as “regime of islands” under the “Republic of the Philippines.”
The Philippines needed at that time to define its baselines to meet the deadline set by the United Nations for countries to define its maritime boundaries pursuant to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or risk losing its extended continental shelf. A baselines law is also necessary so that overlapping claims in the South China Sea can be addressed by the UN.
Under UNCLOS, the Philippines is entitled to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles and an extended continental shelf of 350 nautical miles, which appear to encompass a large portion of the Spratlys.
The Spratlys controversy, the embassy said, posed as “a strategic conundrum to the Arroyo administration.”
“Filipino nationalism and widespread suspicion over China’s intentions in the region militate in favor of the government taking a more aggressive stance in advocating for Philippine sovereignty over the islands,” the cable said.
For these reasons, the embassy said, “the Arroyo administration had little choice but to allow the JMSU agreement to lapse when it expired on June 30, (2008) even though doing so posed a setback to its relations with China.”
The embassy also saw the Philippines as “the weaker party in an increasingly asymmetric relationship with China” as its military is preoccupied more with containing the country’s insurgent groups.
It added it is clearly not in the Philippines’ best interests to allow tensions in the South China Sea to escalate to the level of armed confrontations.