Scarborough Shoal, also called Panatag Shoal, Bajo De Masinloc or Karburo, refers to a group of rocks or very small islands and reefs in a triangle shape 123 miles (198kms) west of Subic Bay. Its nearest landmass is Palauig, Zambales.

The name Scarborough shoal was taken after the East India company tea trade ship Scarborough that hit the rocks in 12 September 1784 (everyone on board perished).

To China, Scarborough Shoal is Huangyan Island or Minzhu Jiao.

Why the shoal is important

One may ask why there are competing claims from several countries.
Spratly Islands is located strategically where trade routes pass between Europe and the Middle East, from the Indian Ocean to Malacca Strait then to South China Sea to South Korea and Japan.

This strategic importance do affect all claimants. It is estimated that a third of the world’s maritime trade passes in the region. USA “will not allow the sea lanes of communication be blocked”.

Should a country control the area in dispute, that country has total control on the economic development and the trade routes.

Another reason is its oil reserves. China in 1989 announced that the Spratly Islands contain 25 billion cubic metres natural gas, 105 billion barrels of oil and 370,000 tons of phosphor.

The region is a rich fishing grounds which the Filipinos as early as the Spanish colonisation has been using and occupying and could even sail there with eyes closed.

Of course the location plays a significant role in geopolitical strategy.

How do we view the current crisis? The Philippines and China have signed in 2002 the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea together with the other 10 ASEAN member countries. The declaration seeks to “resolve territorial issues by peaceful means and in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea”.

China has not agreed to take the matter to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea ( ITLOS) insisting on bilateral discussions.

The possible solution is through multilateral diplomacy where borders are agreed in the same way that the Gulf of Tonkin and Vietnam – China land borders were settled.

Will a Mutual Defence Treat with China help? That’s the thinking of one Philippine Senator. The only dilemma is when there is conflict between USA and China.

Wil USA come to help? The US re-engagement strategy is to ensure maritime security, freedom of navigation, increase economic opportunities and has no intentions of damaging their relations with Beijing. No less than Secretary Hillary Clinton has said that let diplomacy work and international law to be respected.

Disputing Claims of Sovereignty

China People’s Republic of China (PROC ) and Taiwan Republic of China (ROC) claim that Chinese people discovered the shoal centuries ago and there is a long history of Chinese fishing activity. A Chinese astronomer, Guo Shoujing went in 1279 to the island under the Yuan dynasty for an empire–wide survey called“Measurement of the Four Seas” and in 1979 historical geographer Han Zhenhua was among the first scholars to claim that the point called ‘Nanhai” (literally South Sea) in that astronomical survey referred to Scarborough Shoal. In 1980 in a dispute with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands  (Xisha) China issued an official document claiming that ‘Nanhai’ in the 1279 survey was located in the Paracels. Defending this view was historical geographer Nu Zhongxun.

In 1990, historian Zeng Zhaoxuan argued that Nanhai measuring point was located in Central Vietnam. Historian of astronomy Chen Meidong and historian of Chinese science Sivin have since agreed with Zeng’s position in their books about Guo Shoujing.

In 1935, ROC claimed that the shoal was part of the Zhongsha Islands. In 1947 its name was changed to Minzhu Jiao (Democracy reef).In 1983 PROC renamed it Huangyan Islands. In 1956, China protested that South China Islands in close proximity is Philippine territory. China in 1958 issued a Declaration on the territorial sea which include’ all other islands belonging to China separated from the mainland and its coastal islands by the high seas’.

Philippines' Position

The Philippines is an archipelagic state as approved under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea held in Jamaica 10 Decmber 1982.

It means  it is composed of a group of islands forming a state as a single unit with the islands and waters within the baseline as internal waters, By this concept archipelagic doctrine, it legalises the unity of land, water and  people as a single entity no longer divided into several islands.

This principle is found in the 1987 constitution which states:”The national territory comprises the Philippine archipelago, with all the islands and waters embraced therein xxx and the waters around, between and connecting the islands of the archipelago regardless of their dimensions form part of the internal waters of the Philippines”.

Philippines claim to Scarborough Shoal and other Spratly islands  is anchored on UNCLOS 200 Nautical Mile Exclusive Economic Zone and as early as the Spanish colonization Filipino fishermen were already using the area as a traditional fishing ground plus Philippine Government Declarations and actions.

The People of the Currents from Mindanao and Sulu, feel they own these seas, some have inhabited some islands for centuries when Sulu was the Trading Post between Britain, China and India. They are the ones that stand between China and the Philippines and sail without compass and will get you to islands bearing their native names even with their eyes closed.

Maps published by Spain and the United states in the 18th and 20th centuries show Scarborough shoal as Philippine territory. The "Carta hydrographical y chorographica de las islas Filipinas in 1734" show Scarborough Shoal, then called Panacot Shoal, and with the shape of the shoal consistent with current maps as ours.

In 1792, another map drawn by the Malaspina expedition published in 1802 in Madrid showed Bajo de Masinloc as part of Philippine territory. The map was reproduced in the Atlas of the 1939 Philippine Census which predates the 1947 Chinese South China Sea claim map that shows no Chinese name on it.

Another topographic map in 1820 showed the shoal named there as “Bajo Scarborough” a constituent part of Sambalez (Zambales ).  In the 1900s Mapa General, Islas Filipinas , Observatorio de Manila , and the US Coast and Geodetic Survey map include Scarborough Shoal named as “Bajo de Masinloc”.

In a paper delivered at last month's Coral Triangle Initiative forum under the DENR and Australia, it was mentioned that Charles Darwin in his first monograph a separate section on the Philippine Archipelago has this nugget:

“SCARBOROUGH SHOAL: This coral–shoal is engraved with a double row of crosses, forming a circle, as if there was deep water deep within the reef: close outside there was no bottom, with a hundred fathoms, coloured blue.The sea off the west cost of Palawan and the northern part of Borneo is strewn with shoals”.

Similarly, in "The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs", being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt Fitzroy R.N. 1832 to 1836 stated: “A bank gradually shoaling to the depth of 30 fathoms, extends to a distance of about 20 miles from the northern part of Borneo, and to 30 miles from the northern part of Palawan. Near the land this bank appears tolerably free from danger...".

The Department of Foreign Affairs also said regarding Bajo De Masinloc that “Darwin’s 1842 publication that the coast of China, Tonquin and Cochin-China, forming the western boundary of the China sea, appear to be without reefs”.

In 1933, a Philippine senator protested French annexation of the Spratlys but the US government did not take interest of it.

In 1946 Vice President Elpidio Quirino, on behalf of the Philippine Government made a claim for Spratly Islands, and a year later the Secretary of Foreign Affairs announced and claimed that that the ‘New Southern Islands’ previously occupied by Japan is part of Philippine territory.

Filipino navigator and businessman Tomas Cloma in 1955 proclaimed to the whole world claiming ownership and occupation of Spratlys and sent six letters to the government on the need to settle the question of ownership of the islands.

The Cloma claim in 1951 and 1952 was the first assertion of title of the Spratlys after Japan renounced its sovereignty.

President Ferdinand Marcos issued a Presidential Decree  No. 1599 in 1978, claiming ownership and most of the islands and renamed it Kalayaan (Freedom) under Palawan by virtue of proximity and part of the continental margin of the Philippine archipelago with  Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline from which the territorial sea is measured.

In 2009, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo enacted RA9522, the Philippine Baseline Law of 2009. It classifies the Spratly islands and Scarborough Shoal as a regime of Islands under the Republic of the Philippines.

As to China’s claim that the Chinese discovered Huangyan Island, the Philippines relies on the Island Of Palmas Case where sovereignty was given to Netherlands for effective jurisdiction and control despite the historic claim of Spain. The Philippines has exercised effective jurisdiction and effective occupation of the shoal since its independence.

Lolita Farmer OAM is a Sydney-based lawyer and migration agent. She's the first Filipino woman to become a practicing lawyer in New South Wales. For three years she held a United Nations post working with humanitarian issues in discrimination and women’s rights. In 1981, she was recognised with the Order of Australia Medal.


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