• VADM Jose Luis M. Alano AFP RET

In the name of national development and security: Advancing the Philippines’ maritime zones


The Philippines continues to face unprecedented challenges to its national maritime domain. These national maritime disruptions affect normal passage of vessels that bring it with economic and strategic value. Externally, the Philippine Government is still grappling with transnational issues such as piracy and IUU (Illegal, unreported, and unregulated) fishing. The Philippines’ enforcement capabilities are also tested to its fullest extent as China continues to illegally intrude and patrol within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones. Internally, the Government’s initiative to address questions and concerns of maritime significance has stagnated. Critical legislation that allows for the concretization of national maritime zones has not moved past the committee level in the House of Representatives and has not been prioritized by the Senate. Taken together, these challenges amount to an obstacle that needs to be addressed and brought to public attention in preparation for the next election cycle.


As of 2020, the Philippines has achieved incremental steps toward the establishment of maritime zones coherent to international law but much still needs to be done. To have a better sense of the national marine spatial and planning management policy of the Philippines, it is essential to cultivate the right set of concerns. In this essay, a brief historical exploration of the Philippines’ maritime zones will be taken, first. Second, it is important to situate the Philippines’ national maritime policy in the last three decades parallel to an exploration of the initiatives undertaken by the Philippine Government thus far to adequately keep its base lines up to international standards will be done. Lastly, a look at various maritime initiatives for the present and future administrations will be done.


The brief history of the Philippines’ maritime zones


Prior to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Philippines already possessed a distinct maritime regime entitling it to rights of an archipelagic state. Key pre-UNCLOS legislations and executive issuances have more or less contributed to the Philippines’ early maritime regime. This includes Executive Order No. 380 (s. 1950), Republic Act No. 3046 (s. 1961, as amended by R.A. 5446, s. 1986), Proclamation No. 370 (s. 1968), Presidential Decree Nos. 87 (s. 1972) and 1599 (s. 1978), and E.O. No. 738 (s. 1981). All of these outlined the Philippines’ basic territorial configurations, responsibilities, and jurisdictional scope.


While the early negotiations of the UNCLOS (UNCLOS I and II) did not recognize rights and entitlements of archipelagic states, these were subsequently added in UNCLOS III negotiations, only after the increase of new independent island and developing states.


The Philippines was among the first to sign the UNCLOS III on the very first day of the signing on December 10, 1982 and was the 11th state to ratify the treaty on May 8, 1984. Ironically, however, the Philippines has modified its archipelagic baselines in conformity with international treaties incrementally. This has resulted in inconsistent laws and issuances much to the detriment of the Philippines.


Situating the Philippines’ maritime zones: Then and now


It is noteworthy that the Article I of the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines recognized archipelagic waters, territorial sea, EEZs, and insular shelves as maritime features of the country. From an operator’s perspective, combining the above government policies into a single map of the Philippines is at best incoherent, confusing, and complicated. In effect, the Philippines has no official comprehensive and coherent map. This has major national implications in vital areas such as marine scientific research, marine economic development, disaster response, and culture and education.


With UNCLOS coming into force in 1994, the Philippine Government exhausted efforts to harmonize domestic policies with international law. R.A. 9522 (s. 2009, amending R.A. 5446), although contested early on, helped update the Philippines’ archipelagic baselines in compliance with UNCLOS. The negotiations on overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZ) between the Philippines and Indonesia have also reached its conclusion in 2014 and was ratified by both governments in 2017. R.A. 10654 (s. 2015) allowed for a comprehensive Fisheries Code in the country. Responding to external aggression, the Philippine Government returned to international laws and norms and, on two occasions, asserted naming rights over maritime features as enshrined in domestic and international laws: Administrative Order No. 29 (s. 2012) renaming the west coast of the Philippines as West Philippine Sea and Proclamation No. 489 (s. 2018) renaming Benham Rise to Philippine Rise. The Philippines also won its case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 invalidating China’s historical claims in the South China Sea, which was a culmination of the Philippine Government’s persisting efforts in implementing its maritime zones.


What needs to be done


Despite much of the Philippines’ triumphs over maritime concerns, much still needs to be done. This first comprehensive attempt at national policy directive on maritime maintenance by the Philippine Government was E.O. No. 186 (s. 1994), better known as the 1994 National Marine Policy (NMP). The 1994 NMP outlined 13 strategic points from which succeeding administrations must make efforts to build upon. However, a closer examination of the 13 points found that only one (1) was completed; three (3) were partially completed; six (6) were barely completed; and three (3) have yet to begin.


The Philippines’ national marine policy also needs to overcome specific hurdles such as 1) inconsistent schools of thought and priorities on maritime zones, 2) poor investments in marine research, 3) bureaucratic duress on maritime responsibilities, 4) outdated laws and technology on regulation of maritime zones, 5) weak institutions and poor capabilities, 6) lack of exploitation and appreciation of natural resources’ potentials, 7) the lack of whole-of-society approach to maritime zones, and 8) the lack of interconnectivity of governance structure between land and water.


Worse than the burgeoning of unattended responsibilities, a 2016 review of the 1994 National Marine Policy by the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies found that representatives of national government agencies did not know the existence of the 1994 NMP only until a workshop on said policy was held in 2015.


Addressing these critical minutiae is crucial but the solutions must be sustainable, inclusive, and integrative. The Philippines’ maritime zones must stand the test of election cycles. A matter of national development and security such as this must not and should not be beholden to partisan politics. It must likewise be visionary in that it looks beyond the decade and strives toward a half-century’s worth of consistent planning and prioritizations. Solutions must likewise take into account various stakeholders that will deeply benefit from maritime discussions and legislations; solutions are best done from the ground-up. This would mean engaging not just the local government in budgetary terms but as well as ordinary Filipino citizens whose livelihoods are dependent on rich marine ecosystems – an engagement that incorporates best sustainable practices. Just as important is the integrative necessity of broad cooperative frameworks between states. The example between Indonesia and the Philippines is a good lesson to emulate.

All these must begin with the legislation of a Maritime Zones Law – a law that is much needed, demanded, and long overdue.

*This article was commissioned by ARS in behalf of the Foundation for the National Interest through the support of The Asia Foundation for the project on "Governance, Security, and Development in the Philippine Maritime Domain.o.

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