Philippine congress approves bill establishing maritime zones around archipelago

Camille Elemia
Philippine congress approves bill establishing maritime zones around archipelago A fisherman from Masinloc, a town in Zambales province on Luzon island in the northern Philippines, prepares his boat for an expedition in the South China Sea, Feb. 26, 2024.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

The Philippines’ Senate and House have separately approved a bill to establish the country’s maritime zones through legislation that marks “a significant milestone” in managing territorial waters amid tense disputes along some of its sea borders, analysts said.

The Philippine Maritime Zones Bill sets the archipelagic boundaries as well as the Philippines’ internal waters and exclusive economic zones, the analysts and lawmakers said.

The House passed the bill in May 2023, while the Senate approved it on Monday. The two houses must make sure the language in both bills is the same before sending that version to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to sign.

Sen. Francis Tolentino, sponsor of Senate Bill 2492, said it would serve “as the cornerstone of our maritime policy, protecting our sovereignty and addressing our national security needs.”

Tolentino said the bill would highlight the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its EEZ in the West Philippine Sea – the waters of the South China Sea that lie within Manila’s jurisdiction – and Benham Rise, off the country’s eastern seaboard in the Philippine Sea.

“Whatever happens in Scarborough Shoal, whatever happens in the ocean in the West Philippine Sea, whatever happens in Benham Rise, the measure is part of our history and it will be a marker of our freedom,” Tolentino said in a statement on Monday.

“Within the maritime zones law, we can forge more alliances with other countries, under a rules-based international order in compliance with UNCLOS,” Tolentino said.

The legislation is anchored in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and a 2016 international arbitration court’s ruling that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

China claims historic ownership of nearly all of the South China Sea and lately has blocked or attempted to block Philippine ships and fishing boats in the maritime region on multiple occasions. Apart from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also have territorial claims in the strategic waterway.

Beijing has maintained a constant presence near the two major flashpoints in these waters, Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) and Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippines this month launched coast guard patrols around Scarborough Shoal to challenge China.

More recently, the Philippine government on Sunday accused the China Coast Guard of attempting to block efforts to deliver supplies to fishing boats near Scarborough Shoal, according to media reports.

The incident involving harassment of the BRP Datu Sanday occurred on Feb. 22, according to the Philippine Coast Guard. It said the incident occurred a week after a similar encounter involving the BRP Datu Tamblot.

A Philippine FA-50 fighter-jet (bottom) and a U.S. B-52H bomber carry out an air patrol over Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, Feb. 19, 2024. [Philippine Air Force/ Facebook]

Meanwhile on Feb. 19, the Philippine Coast Guard posted deatails and photos on its Facebook page of a joint air patrol with the United States that covered 90 nautical miles in Manila’s EEZ. One photo showed a Philippine FA-50 flying next to a U.S. B-52H Stratofortress bomber.

Significant milestone

In recent years, China had sent research ships to the other side of the Philippines, in the Benham Rise, without Manila’s permission. 

In 2018, Beijing registered names for five undersea features, raising alarm bells that Beijing would encroach in these waters, according to Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.

Batongbacal said the bill’s passage “marks a significant milestone in the country’s long and difficult quest toward effectively managing our seas.

“Foreign states will be obliged to ensure that their flag vessels comply with the laws and regulations of the country in accordance with international law. This enables us to secure international cooperation in the conservation and management of our inter-island and offshore waters,” Batongbacal told reporters on Monday.

Julio S. Amador III, interim president of the Foundation for the National Interest, a Philippine NGO, said that clearly delineating maritime zones was essential for the Philippine government in harnessing natural resources and tapping the blue economy’s potential. Blue economy refers to proper, sustainable use of sea resources.

“It will also provide a legal basis for the effective exercise of Filipinos’ rights in maritime areas,” Amador said in a news commentary published on Feb. 20. “This puts us in good standing with our partners and allies, and with the wider international community.”

The passage of the bill, Amador told BenarNews, “underscores the Philippines’ commitment to defend its rights in its waters.”

“I hope President Marcos can sign the bill into law the soonest,” he said.


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