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The Huangyan Island Standoff: A Review of the Claims and the Prospects for the Future

May 05 , 2012
  • Wu Shicun

    President, China Institute of South China Sea Studies

Starting on April 10th, China and the Philippines became embroiled in a standoff in disputed waters in the South China Sea. The standoff occurred when eight Chinese fishing boats, while taking refuge in a lagoon near Huangyan Island due to harsh weather, were harassed by the Philippine largest warship Gregorio del Pilar. Shortly after, two unarmed China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels which were conducting routine patrols in the area, appeared and interposed themselves between the fishing boats and the frigate thus preventing any arrest of the fishermen.

In order to de-escalate the situation, China’s fishing boats left the site on April 13th, followed by the withdrawal of two Chinese law enforcement vessels. China has shown restraint in handling the incident. On the contrary, the messages sent by the Philippine government and media have been rather provoking and of little help to keep the situation under control. The Philippine actions, such as urging other countries to ‘take a stand’ and extending the dispute to the entire South China Sea, could only lead to more intensified situation instead of an appropriate solution.

The harassment on April 10th is one of 700 similar cases in the last 12 years where fishermen from Tanmen in Hainan Province were arrested, robbed or assaulted by the armed forces of neighboring countries while fishing in the South China Sea, which has been their traditional fishing ground for generations. The neighboring countries have been taking advantage of China’s restraint and have seriously violated the Declaration on the Conducts of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). To respond to the blatant challenges, China has stepped up in protecting its sovereignty over Huangyan Island and its jurisdiction over the adjacent waters defined by the UNCLOS.

China claims sovereignty over the Huangyan Island and jurisdiction rights over its adjacent waters which are the traditional fishing ground for the Chinese fishermen. China was the first to discover Huangyan Island, name it, incorporate it into its territory and exercise jurisdiction over it. Huangyan Island was first discovered by Chinese in Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368AD). In 1279, Huangyan Island was chosen as the point in the South China Sea when Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing performed surveying of the seas around China for Kublai Khan. Since its discovery, Huangyan Island has been incorporated as part of Zhongsha Islands into Chinese territory. Since 1949, Huangyan Island has been under consistent administration of Guangdong Province first and Hainan Province later.

Since ancient times, the Chinese fishermen have been fishing around Huangyan Island and its adjacent waters. Many scientific expedition activities have been conducted in this area by different Chinese government agencies in various periods.

First discovery, consistent administration, historical rights of fishing are all recognized as valid in international law to support territory claims.

The Philippines never laid claims on Huangyan Island until 1997. Instead, its officials have repeatedly stated that the island was outside the Philippine territory. The Philippine maps published in 1981 and 1984 also indicate that Huangyan Island was outside the Philippine territory.

The Philippines has made three arguments on its claim in different periods of time. The earliest argument was that Huangyan Island was closer to the Philippine territory. In fact, ‘geographic proximity’ has long been dismissed by the international law and practice as the principle of the solution of territory ownership. The Philippines also argue that it ‘inherited’ the sovereignty and jurisdiction over Huangyan Island from the US which controlled the island in 1950s as target range for military exercise. The argument is invalid in international law as the US’ control had infringed China’s sovereignty over Huangyan Island. The latest argument is that Huangyan Island is located within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It’s a false interpretation of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The basic principle of the law of the sea is ‘the land dominates the sea’, meaning it is the territorial sovereignty of coastal states that generates their sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the EEZ and over the continental shelf. The fact that Huangyan Island is within 200 nm off the Philippine coastline does not naturally give the Philippines sovereignty over it or make it part of its territory.

UNCLOS allows coastal states to claim a 200nm EEZ, but does not grant them rights to undermine the inherent territory and sovereignty of other countries. The UNCLOS should not be used as an excuse by any states to infringe the territorial sovereignty of other states. 

The Philippines attempts to misuse international laws to serve its interest. As a matter of fact, the Philippine claim runs counter to not only historical fact and legal principle but also its own legislation.

The Philippine territory is set by a series of international treaties, including the Treaty of Paris between the United States and Spain in 1898, the Treaty of Washington between the United States and Spain in 1900 and the Treaty between United States and Great Britain in 1930. All of them state clearly that the west limit of the Philippine territory is 118th degree meridian of longitude east of Greenwich, while Huangyan Island is obviously outside the limit. The legal effects of these three treaties have been reaffirmed by several official documents, such as the 1935 Philippine Constitution, the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty and a few Philippine republic acts. The Philippine legislations have proven that Huangyan Island has never been part of its territory.

China has never changed its stance of resolving the standoff through peaceful diplomatic channels. All the Chinese vessels involved are civilian. The latest official statement from the Philippines is President Aquino III’s overriding instructions to his military not to intensify the issue. It’s a positive step that the Philippines has taken to share China’s view of maintaining the overall peace and stability in the South China Sea and preserving the healthy and stable development of the bilateral relation in the best interest of the two countries. Peaceful resolution of the standoff could play an exemplary role in resolving similar incidents in the future.

China attaches great importance to maintaining friendly and good-neighborly ties with Southeast Asian countries. It upholds the stance of resolving the South China Sea issue through peaceful means directly between claimant parties. However, the lack of mutual trust has caused misinterpretation of China’s intentions and actions in the South China Sea. The dispute also serves as the stepping stone for powers outside the region to interfere.

China has stepped up its patrol in the South China Sea to prevent dangerous actions that may infringe China’s sovereign rights and interests and threaten the peace and stability in the region. Other parties are urged to play more constructive roles in safeguarding the peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Wu Shicun is President of National Institute for South China Sea Studies

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