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West Philippine Sea or South China Sea? The Difference Matters

There is ownership in a name.
by Ara Eugenio
May 6, 2021
Photo/s: Courtesy of Philippine Coast Guard

As geopolitical tensions have again flared up over China's aggression in asserting its nine-dash line claims, there again is the confusion: is it South China Sea or West Philippine Sea?

The two are often used interchangeably by Filipinos—commonly perceived as one and the same. They are not, as clarified by Administrative Order No. 29 of former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III whose administration pursued the landmark case that legitimized the Philippines' claim and invalidated China's.

"The maritime areas on the western side of the Philippine archipelago are hereby named as the West Philippine Sea. These areas include the Luzon Sea as well as the waters around, within and adjacent to the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo De Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal," Section 1 of the order said. 

According to Aquino, “it is important to clarify which portions we claim as ours versus the entirety of the South China Sea". The latter refers to the vast marginal sea at the western part of the Pacific ocean which China has claimed almost entirely since 1947 over its supposed "historical rights".

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This nine-dash claim that demarcates up to 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometres of the Philippines, claiming 80% of the latter's exclusive economic zone, was deemed illegal in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague. It served an important precedent for other claimant states against China -- Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

“We call it West Philippine Sea. There is a portion of it they call East Sea. Each one calls it by another name. Let’s make clear what areas we claim as ours,” Aquino had said.

“West Philippine Sea does not cover the entire South China Sea. West Philippine Sea is referring to waters within our jurisdiction consisting of our territorial sea and exclusive economic zone,” retired supreme court justice Antonio Carpio, one of the leading Filipino defenders at the Hague, said in 2016. 

If one is talking about the whole dispute involving the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan, the term South China Sea can be used, but "if you're talking about China-Philippine dispute, use West Philippine Sea,” Carpio said days after the landmark award was handed to the Philippines. 

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'Naming is ownership'

The name change was primarily a "politico-psychological" battle, Walden Bello, the house lawmaker from which the resolution originated, told The Diplomat in 2011.

"If you keep on calling a site the South China Sea, it subliminally connotes some kind of 'possession' by China," he said, noting that a person's actions and thoughts are guided and shaped by forces in their subconscious, without them knowing at all. 

Before the name change, Philippine educational materials such as maps and charts identified the region as entirely the South China Sea. The name tends to condition one to think that the area must be within China's territory. 

Calling the area the West Philippine Sea marks a subliminal paradigm change, Bello said.

To do this, Section 3 of A.O. 29 directed the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA) to produce and publish charts and maps of the Philippines reflecting the West Philippine Sea. In Section 6, it then asked the country's education institutions to adapt the said official Philippine maps in "relevant subjects, researches and instructional materials, such as, among others, text books, instructional materials, and audio-visual presentations.”

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"Suddenly the name that always carried China is now changed," said Bello.

Apart from being a psychological blow to China, it was symbolicmeant to show the world that the Philippines' claims, including the Spratly Islands, are legitimate, Bello said.

Prior to the order, the Aquino administration had begun calling portions of the Philippine territory located in the South China Sea as West Philippine Sea in March of 2011, after a standoff between Chinese patrol ships and Philippine fishing boats in the Spratly group of Islands. 

Bello said the strategy was also meant to be useful at a legal standpoint. In Jan. 22, 2013, with Aquino as the chief architect of Philippine foreign policy, the arbitration case against China was filed. 

As receiver of the award in 2016, President Duterte refused to flaunt the ruling and instead sought closer economic and political ties with Beijing. On Wednesday night, he likened the victory to a  "piece of paper," adding that in "real life," the situation in the West Philippine Sea is dictated by who is more powerful.

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