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Our Extended Continental Shelf

(Article published in the Dec 16, 2009 issue of Manila Standard Today) 

“We should be vigilant”, says Atty. Eduardo F. Hernandez, author, with his lawyer son, Adrian, and Atty. Antonio R. Velicaria, of the reference volume entitled “Philippine Admiralty and Maritime Law”, “lest we lose our share in the continental shelf that rightfully belongs to us.”

Speaking before the Geological Society of the Philippines last 02 December, Eddie (as Atty. Hernandez is called by his friends) reminds us that we in the past lost one of our islands—the Island of Palmas—to Indonesia.

That island was 2 miles long and quarter of a mile wide then populated by about 750 people speaking a dialect similar to Visayan but closer to the Indonesian dialect. It was within the area ceded by Spain to the United States in the Treaty of Paris when we were bought for a measly $20,000,000 and was closer to the Philippines than to Indonesia, the other claimant.  The Philippine claim, which was pursued by the US, was thus based on the right of discovery by its predecessor, and, in addition, on the proximity principle. 

The decision of the Permanent International Court of Arbitration, disregarded the Philippine arguments, noting that Spain, after discovering the Philippines, nevertheless abandoned it.  The Netherlands, on the other hand, exercised authority over it by entering into treaties with the local princes, spreading its brand of Christianity, regulated the presence and behavior of foreigners, and otherwise acted as if the island were its own.  Thus, Las Palmas was adjudged as belonging to Indonesia.  The eventuality of losing what is rightfully ours, Atty. Hernandez does not want to happen again.


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), concluded in 1982 with China and the Philippines as well as 150 other countries (but not the United States) as signatories, provides us with the opportunity to make a rightful claim to a large area of the continental shelf that could be exploited to provide the resources, with the adequate participation of foreign investors, needed to feed our hungry millions.

However, we do not have too much time, though.  The UNCLOS gave all countries that had ratified it before 13 May 1999 only ten years within which to claim the extension of their continental shelf beyond the standard 200 nautical miles, provided the extension was no more than 100 miles from the point at which the sea reached a depth of 2.5 kms and no more than 350 miles from the land.  The claim must be supported, naturally, with copious technical and scientific evidence showing that the seabed we are claiming is indeed continental shelf.

The starting point of proving such a claim is the determination of the Philippine baselines, which are the outer points along our coastline from which we measure our seas and determine how much of the surrounding seas we can claim.  Presently, we have the recent law, R.A. 9522, which is a technical adjustment of the base points and baselines provided in previous laws, R.A. No. 3046 and 5466.  R.A. 9522, together with geographic coordinates and the charts and maps indicating our revised baselines, was timely deposited and registered with the UN Secretary-General. 

However, we have not completed the homework required by the UNCLOS. Mapping of the eastern side—the so-called Benham rise—is completed.  And because there is no opposition, we opted to file with the International Commission our evidence to claim the extended continental shelf only on that side, with reservation to file further submissions, regarding our western side or the South China Sea side where the Kalayaan Group, which form part of the Spratly islands, is located. 

There is a lot of wealth in that area.  The Geology & Mineral Resources Ministry of China estimates that Spratlys holds oil and potential natural gas reserves of 17.7 billion tons; Kuwait’s is only 13 billions.  Planktons, a favorite food of marine life in the South China Sea, grow abundantly.  And it is one of the most strategic sea lanes in the world: 270 vessels pass through each day, carrying 70% of Japan’s imported oil; more than half of the world’s supertankers create traffic that is three times larger than the Suez Canal’s.  It is no wonder that, aside from China, the area is claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

What can the Philippines do to put its finger in the pie?  It is essential that Government allocate and utilize sufficient resources to obtain the best scientific evidence and engage the services of local and foreign experts to assess the technical and historical basis not only of our claim but also of the claim of other countries.  To countervail the weight of China, we should band together with the other claimants to negotiate with China on a multi-lateral and not on a one-on-one basis.  China, though projecting the impression that it can stand by itself, knows full well that continuing its prosperity needs exporting to the ASEAN.  But most of all, we need to pass new laws, sufficiently enlightened to attract foreign investors with good returns as well as safety of capital.

When a new administration takes the reins of government next year, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the UNCLOS should be among the top items of its agenda.