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Timeline: The West Philippine Sea Dispute Against China

The latest incident of Chinese vessels swarming the West Philippine Sea has worsened the tension between the two countries.

As the world looks into the worsening political stand-off between the Philippines and China over the disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS), President Rodrigo Duterte said that retaking the WPS was never a campaign promise when he ran for the country’s top post in 2016.

“I, never in my campaign as president, promised the people that I would retake the West Philippine Sea. I did not promise that I would pressure China,” Duterte said during his national address on Monday. “I never mentioned about China and the Philippines in my campaign because that was a very serious matter.” (Read: How Long Does a Pandemic Usually Last?)

This is contrary to his controversial remark five years ago, where he said he would ride a jet ski to plant a Philippine flag on man-made islands occupied by China to assert the country’s sovereignty on the disputed area.

The president also emphasized that Beijing remains a “friend” and benefactor. He appealed that Filipinos need not be rude and disrespectful to China because of the conflict, but instead be grateful for their help in the past— Duterte is referring to China’s involvement in the administration’s “Build, Build, Build” program and provision of COVID-19 test kits and vaccines.

Though somewhat diplomatic, the president’s remarks toward the WPS dispute do not sit well with some of the country’s officials and citizens— prompting discussions over the issue that has been ongoing since 1895, and a revisiting of the facts behind it.

1895: Sino-Japanese War Ends

First Sino-Japanese War. There Stands No Enemy Where We Go: Surrender of Pyongyang, a scene from the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), ink and colour on paper by Migita Toshihide, 1894; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Photo from Encyclopædia Britannica)

On April 17, 1895, China ceded territories to Japan through the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Though not discussed during the negotiations, China maintained that the transfer included the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, while Japan claims that it had owned them since January 1895.

This issue was raised after World War II, when China insisted that the islands must be returned to Chinese rule when Japan renounced claims of all territories seized during the war.

1947: China Marks South China Sea

(Left) The 1947 Chinese map with the 11-dashed lines bordering its claim (Right) US warships transported Chinese soldiers in 1946 to claim the Spratly Islands (Photos from Weipedia)

Under the rule of the Kuomintang party, China has asserted its territorial claims in the South China Sea with an eleven-dash line on a map. The claim covers the majority of the area, including the Pratas Islands, the Macclesfield Bank, and the Paracel and Spratlys Islands.

In 1953, the Chinese Communist Party simplified the border to nine dashes. To this day, China maintains the historical basis of the nine-dash line for its claims in the South China Sea. (Read: Alberto Orillo, 102yo WW2 Veteran, Reveals His Secret to Long Life)

1976: Philippines Discovers Oil Field

Dr. Saldivar-Sali and his team successfully extracted the very first crude oil that flowed out in Palawan.  (Photo from National Museum of the Philippines (2021))

After an extensive exploration program, the Philippines discovered the Nido oil field off the coast of Palawan Island. This is the first oil discovery in the Northwest Palawan Basin and comes four years after the government passes the Oil Exploration and Development Act of 1972 as Manila pushes for energy independence through exploring and developing petroleum resources.

In 1979, the Philippine Cities Service, Inc., the country’s first oil company began drilling a well in the Nido oil field and launched a commercial production that yielded 8.8 million barrels that year.

1992: China Passes Law on the Territorial Sea

In February 1992, China laid claim to the entire South China Sea based on its historical right dating from the Xia Dynasty.

1995-1996: Mischief Reef Incident

A Chinese base built in 1995 stands in Mischief Reef of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. (Photo from Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images/Asia Society)

In 1995, China took control of Mischief Reef— part of the Spratly chain of islands claimed by Manila— by constructing octagonal huts on stilts which are supposedly shelters for fishermen. The Philippines filed a protest through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A year later, three Chinese naval vessels clashed with a Philippine navy gunboat near Capones Island in the Mischief Reef.

The event triggered a crisis in Sino-Philippine relations and revived the US-Philippine military ties. Soon after, the US Navy conducted a joint exercise with their Philippine counterparts on Palawan Island— a move that then-President Fidel Ramos denied connections to Manila’s row with Beijing. Tensions eased after the Philippines and China signed a nonbinding code of conduct for a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute.

2002: ASEAN and China Code of Conduct

In a landmark agreement in Phnom Penh, China and ten ASEAN states agreed on a code of conduct that seeks to ease tensions and creates guidelines for conflict resolution. This marks the first time China accepted a multilateral approach to the issue and signals China’s recognition of limiting conflict in the area.

2009: China Asserts Nine-Dash Line

Photo from Quora

China submits its nine-dash line map to the United Nations and stated that it “has indisputable sovereign over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.” Other claimants, including the Philippines, protested the claim.

Malaysia and Vietnam filed a joint submission to the UN to extend their continental shelves beyond the standard 200 nautical miles from their coastlines, renewing the maritime dispute in the South China Sea. China called this a serious infringement on their sovereignty. This brought the issue to an international forum starting with a conference in Hanoi.

2011: The Philippines Renames South China Sea

The Philippines expressed mounting concern over China’s naval incursions near Spratly Islands. In that same year, the Philippine government begins referring to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea in all official communications and in October 2012 signs an administrative order asserting its “inherent power and right to designate its maritime areas.” (Read: Former SC Justices, UP Law Professors File Petition Against Anti-Terror Law)

2012: Scarborough Shoal Incident

11 April 2012: Fishing vessel Qionghai 09099, a confirmed maritime militia vessel operated by squad leader Xu Detan (center-front) and present at the Scarborough Shoal Standoff, is shown here detained by Philippine authorities for poaching giant clams. (Photo from Center for International Maritime Security)

Diplomatic relations between Manila and Beijing decline further after the Philippines dispatched BRP Gregorio Del Pilar warship to confront Chinese fishing boats in the Scarborough Shoal to confront Chinese fishing boats. 

China subsequently dispatched its own surveillance vessels. A two-month standoff ensues and China warns against tourism to the Philippines. This led to tensions in economic relations as the Philippine government claims it is pursuing various avenues including ASEAN involvement, legal options under UNCLOS, and military assistance from the US. Beijing maintains regular patrols preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing these waters.

2013: The Philippines Files Arbitration Case

The Aquino administration filed an arbitration case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague to settle the dispute. China rejects the process, forcing the court to continue without its participation. The case marks the first time a country has brought a claim against China under UNCLOS regarding the issue. More standoff ensues a year later–a Chinese Coast Guard vessel reportedly fired a water cannon at Filipino fishermen in Bajo de Masinloc and expelled two Philippine vessels from Ayungin Shoal.

2016: The Philippines Wins Arbitration Case Against China

The Hague tribunal rejects China’s declared “nine-dash line” and said that it has no legal basis for its claims to historic rights to resources in the disputed waters. The court says Beijing violated its obligations as a member of UNCLOS, stating its island-building activities harmed marine environment, and its vessels’ unsafe practices heightened navigational risks. China’s foreign ministry says it “neither accepts nor recognizes” the court’s award.

That same year, newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte established a no-fishing zone and marine sanctuary at a lagoon in the Scarborough Shoal, contrary to the Aquino government’s tough response to China’s actions. This signaled a renewal of ties between Manila and Beijing, while China continued reclamation activities. (Read: Timeline: Duterte’s Stand on the West Philippine Sea Over the Years)

2018: US, Chinese Warships Nearly Collide

A US destroyer narrowly avoids colliding with a Chinese destroyer near the Spratly islands while it was conducting a routine freedom of navigation operation. China calls the US patrol as a threat to its sovereignty. Days later, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis cancels his trip to Beijing and former US president Donald Trump said that President Xi Jinping “may not be a friend of mine anymore.”

2019: The Philippines Files Case Against China Before the ICC

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales filed a case of crimes “which involve massive, near-permanent, and devastating environmental damage across nations” before the International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor against China’s President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials.

That same year, Chinese fishing vessel sank a Philippine fishing vessel in an alleged collision and left the fishermen in the water. They were rescued by a Vietnamese ship.

Days later, the Philippine Coast guard reported the presence of several Chinese vessels, including a navy warship, two Coast Guard vessels, and two militia boats, in Scarborough Shoal.

2020: Tensions Rise in the Disputed Territory Amid the Pandemic

Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef) March 27, 2020. (Photo from CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/ABS-CBN News)

China asserts its claims in the West Philippine Sea more aggressively amid the coronavirus pandemic. In February, a Chinese naval ship reportedly aims its weapons control system at a Philippine naval ship in the Spratly Islands. The next month, China opens new research stations including defense silos and military-grade runways.

Vietnam filed a formal complaint after a Chinese vessel rams and sinks a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracels. Meanwhile, Beijing established two administrative districts that cover the Paracel and Spratly Islands–a move that both Philippines and Vietnam denounced.

2021: The Philippines Reports Chinese Militia Presence in WPS

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea voices concerns after it spots around 220 Chinese vessels, believed to be Chinese maritime militia, swarming Julian Felipe Reef, about 175 nautical miles west of Palawan. The task force expressed its concern that the Chinese may have been overfishing and destroying the marine environment and exposing risks to the safety of navigation. (Read: West Philippine Sea: DFA Files Diplomatic Protests Against China)

The Department of Foreign Affairs files a diplomatic protest against China over the incident. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana slams the presence of China’s vessels, saying it is “a clear provocative action of militarizing the area.”

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels anchored the Whitsun Reef located in the disputed South China Sea. Tuesday, March 23, 2021. The United States said Tuesday it’s backing the Philippines in a new standoff with Beijing in the disputed South China Sea, where Manila has asked a Chinese fishing flotilla to leave a reef. China ignored the call, insisting it owns the offshore territory. (Photo from 2021 Maxar Technologies/AP News)

China denies allegations and denounced the claim as an “unnecessary irritation.”

AFP Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana says that the military is opposed to any incursion in Philippine waters but is undecided about the best course of action to take. The AFP confirms that at least 183 vessels believed to be Chinese maritime militia continue to surround the Reef. A month later, more ships are reported to spread out in more reefs.

A word war between the Chinese embassy and Sec. Lorenzana ensues, as the latter asserts Philippine sovereignty in the disputed waters.

In a statement, Lorenzana calls out China for shunning international law, particularly the UNCLOS, by continuing to claim the West Philippine Sea despite the Philippines’s landmark legal victory in 2016. Lorenzana points out, the Philippines’s claims “stand on solid ground, while China’s do not.” He further said that China is “encroaching and should desist and leave.”

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