Why PH should fight for its territorial rights over Sandy Cay

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Highlights

  • China claim on Sandy Cay could take one third of Pag-asa territorial sea
  • Carpio warns 80 percent of EEZ at risk
  • Carpio urges diplomatic protests, tribunal cases, UN resolution

Updated with statement from Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 14) The Philippines has much to lose if it opts to keep quiet on China's ongoing reclamation of islands in contested areas of the South China Sea.

"If we lose Sandy Cay, we lose one third of the territorial sea of Pag-asa. We lose Subi Reef, and the tribunal said it's part of our territorial sea," acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, told CNN Philippines' The Source. He was referring to the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling favoring the Philippines.

But Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said what's important is no one is building any structure on Sandy Cay as agreed by claimant countries.

"Yung sinasabi niya (What he's saying) is technically true but it's actually sensationalized to evoke na we're losing," he said of Carpio's claims.

What and where exactly is Sandy Cay, and how can neglecting a single sandbar have such large consequences for the Philippines' territorial claim?

Carpio helps CNN Philippines break down the significance of the newly formed island.

What is Sandy Cay?

Sandy Cay was a low-tide elevation when the Philippines filed a case against China before the Hague-based arbitral tribunal in 2012. The tribunal ruling in 2016 invalidated China's historical claims to nearly the entire South China Sea.

Sandy Cay is located between Subi Reef another low-tide elevation claimed by China in the Spratly group of islands and Pag-asa Island (also known as Thitu Island), the seat of the Palawan municipality of Kalayaan. Both features are in Philippines' territorial sea, as stated by the tribunal ruling.

Sandy-Cay-with-labels_CNNPH.jpg  

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a low-tide elevation is a naturally-formed land area surrounded by water. The area stays above water at low tide but is submerged at high tide.

But Sandy Cay acquired more sand over time as China's island dredging in Subi Reef pulverized coral formations there. Carpio said storms dispersed the sand to Sandy Cay, causing it to rise above water. Hence, it became a full-fledged island subject to territorial claim.

"China saw it rising and we saw it... also but China beat us to the draw," said Carpio. "China sent its Coast Guard vessels, its maritime fishing boats and surrounded it, so we cannot go there anymore."

What happens if China claims Sandy Cay?

Citing international law, Carpio urged the Philippines to assert its rights over Sandy Cay, since it formed within the 12-nautical mile territorial sea of Pag-asa.

"Since Sandy Cay emerged out of the territorial sea of Pag-asa which we control, then Sandy Cay should belong to the Philippines," he said.

Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano previously warned that the Eastern giant's deployment of ships to the sandbar may encroach on the country's sovereign rights.

Carpio agreed, saying a Chinese claim would divide the territorial sea of Pag-asa, and the Philippines could lose one third of the area.

"One third of the territorial sea of Pag-asa will now go to the territorial sea of Sandy Cay. So we lose a huge area, about 51,000 hectares more than three times the size of Quezon City," he explained.

 

Is that all the Philippines stands to lose?

Carpio thinks not. China has a spreading militarization in South China Sea, which includes the presence of nuclear-armed bombers in the region. Among the other areas with Chinese presence is Scarborough Shoal, the Paracel Island Chain, and the Spratly Island group.

Among the occupied islands is Woody Island, part of the Paracels. It is claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, but has been under China's control for over 40 years.

Woody Island could be used as a strategic air and naval base that puts other islands and most of the Philippines' exclusive zone within reach, Carpio warned.

"We are not claiming Woody Island or the Paracels but they will use Woody Island to enforce the nine-dash line, and that means we will lose 80 percent of our exclusive economic zone," he said.

The nine-dash line refers to China's territorial claims to nearly the entire South China Sea, as demarcated in vague terms on Chinese maps by nine dashes forming a U-shaped boundary.

 

What is the Philippines doing now?

China continues to ignore the ruling, which President Rodrigo Duterte has promised to bring up some time under his term. However, Duterte has drawn flak from critics due to his warmer ties with China amid the maritime row.

Since he took office in 2016, more than P382 billion in loans and grants from China for Philippine projects, and P508 billion in investments from Chinese firms, have been inked.

But Carpio believes the billions in loans from China is "just a pittance" compared to the value of the resources we could lose in the West Philippine Sea.

"The (exclusive economic zone) of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea is a very huge area, larger than our total land area... You have oil, fish, gas, and other mineral resources," said Carpio. "There's no comparison at all."

What else can the Philippines do?

Carpio and other maritime experts have urged the Philippine government to file diplomatic protests and more cases against China before the tribunal.

Among the measures that Carpio advocates include a tribunal case against China's destruction of coral reefs; another case against the seizure of Filipino fishermen's catch; a United Nations resolution urging China to comply with the 2016 ruling; and an objection at the International Seabed Authority that could prevent China from gaining permits to mine on seabeds.

"You cannot put a value on sovereign rights," said Carpio. "If you lose [that], you lose it forever. You cannot get it back."