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Shrinking archipelago

By Rodney JalecoBy Rodney Jaleco

When news of the latest flare-up at Scarborough Shoal made the front page, many back home thought it was part of the Spratly Island dispute with China.

In fact, it is hundreds of miles away from Spratly Islands which lie west of Palawan; Scarborough Shoal is closer to Zambales on Luzon’s western coast. Many Filipinos have only cursory knowledge of the various Philippine territorial disputes.

The Philippines has arrested significant numbers of Chinese fishermen there but barely raised a ruckus. The Shoal, actually a collection of reefs and rocks that more often disappear during high tide, is 137 miles (220 kilometers) from Palauig, Zambales.

For decades, Filipino and Chinese fishermen have shared the rich seas, including the harvesting of guano or bird droppings that was prized as an ingredient for gunpowder. American warships often sailed through the waters going to and from Subic Base.

In 1957, the Philippines conducted an oceanographic survey of the area  together with the US Navy. They built a flag pole to fly the Philippine flag and when China tried to plant a marker in 1997, it was quickly thrown down by Filipino troops.

Spanish and American maps showed Scarborough Shoal as part of the Philippines  identified as “Bajo de Masinloc”. The Philippine claim rests largely on proximity  it is the closest land mass to the Shoal.

But in the realm of geopolitics, proximity does not carry as much weight as actual presence or occupation. The Chinese have built markers and regularly sent ships to Sabina Shoal, just 70 miles (113 kilometers) from the municipality of Quezon in Palawan Province.

The Philippines has lost its claim over Ligatan and Sipadan Islands off the Borneo coast with neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia. The claim is part of the larger dispute with Malaysia over Sabah.

Sipadan rings bells perhaps because of the May 2000 kidnapping incident perpetrated by the Al-qaeda affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group.

The shrinking of the Philippine archipelago extends to the north where Taiwan has reportedly intruded with impunity on the smaller, uninhabited islands near the Balintang Channel off the Cagayan coastline.

For years, the Philippine Navy has been trying to develop a base at Port Irene in the breathtaking Sta. Ana coastal area. The Taiwanese moves are reportedly tolerated because they are the biggest foreign investors in the Ilocano-speaking region.  In fact, the fancier hotels in Laoag City have snack dispensers that will accept only American and New Taiwan Dollars.

But it’s only a matter of time before heightening competition for fisheries and other resources in the area boils over to intra-government dispute.

Upholding Philippine sovereignty in the South China Sea is only the tip of a wider challenge to preserve the nation’s territorial integrity.

There are myriad economic, environmental, security and political pressures for neighbors to encroach on the Philippines. That raises the very real prospect the Philippines could lose some of its islands  regardless of the tides.


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