Declare Spratlys a hotspot marine-protected park, Carpio urges rival sea claimants

MANILA — Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on Thursday called on rival South China Sea claimants to declare the Spratlys a marine protected park to shield it from further destruction following China’s massive island construction binge in the contested waters.

Carpio sees the move as a “way forward” and a “win-win” solution to the territorial disputes that involves the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

An international tribunal on July 12 had invalidated China’s massive claim over the resource-rich South China Sea and declared its reclamation activities as illegal in response to a complaint filed by the Philippines in January 2013.

Beijing refused to honor the ruling and discredited the The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that operates under a United Nations convention, of which it is a signatory, along with the Philippines and more than 160 other states.

China, according to Carpio, has the “legal obligation” to comply with the ruling, but admitted that there is no marine policeman to enforce the decision, making the waters’ uninhabited feature vulnerable to future destructive reclamation activities by China.

“We are not moving at all so the Philippines should talk to Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia to declare Spratlys as a protected area on our own. We can do that,” Carpio said at a forum organized by think-tank ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies at De La Salle University in Manila.

Indonesia is not officially regarded as a South China Sea claimant, but China’s nine-dash line territorial claim is widely believed to be eating up a portion of Indonesia’s Natuna Sea.

Carpio said the initiative could be done collectively through a convention or a treaty or even individually if it failed to get the cooperation of all other claimants.

“We have to move, otherwise, we are stuck here,” he said, noting that a collective declaration will “isolate” China if it will continue to defy the tribunal’s ruling and resume the reclamation of features.

Backing a proposal by renowned marine biologist Dr. John McManus for the creation of a Spratlys International Marine Peace Park, Carpio said the move would enable all claimants to suspend for 100 years their territorial claims.

They should also declare all the low-tide and high-tide features in the Spratlys, and an area of 3-nautical miles around each feature, a preserved marine area, for the benefit of all coastal states in the South China Sea.

Carpio said this ensured that the Spratlys will remain the South China Sea’s nursery where fish spawn.

“The eggs and larvae of fish that spawn in the Spratlys are carried by the currents to the coasts of China, Vietnam, Luzon, Palawan, Malaysia, Brunei, Natuna Islands, as well as the Sulu seas,” he said.

Prof. Carmen Lagman of the De La Salle University’s College of Science claimants may also opt for joint, bilateral, or trilateral agreement for reefs that have been identified by scientists in four areas in the Spratlys as very important.

“What it does is that its resources will be put in the area for policing and the area will be monitored,” Lagman said.

Meanwhile, claimant states, under the peace park proposal, will hold on to whatever islands or structures they now possess, but only coast guard personnel and vessels can be stationed in the Spratlys, said Carpio.

Existing structures can only be used for marine scientific research and eco-tourism, he said, citing a similar model such as the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan that created the Red Sea Marine Peace Park in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea.

Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Manila should act now to save South China Sea’s ecosystem, lamenting that the highly destructive practice by China is now “very widespread” across the Spratly area.

“These realities are not just unsustainable, but unacceptable,” he said at the same forum. “If you can see the gravities of these activities, the incidents they sparked showed us that marine destruction is not simply collateral damage but it is at the heart of the problem to be resolved.”

Del Rosario urged the Philippine government to look for ways to cooperate with its neighbors to preserve marine ecosystems in the South China Sea and to ensure the sustainability of fishing resources for everyone.

“Some things we can not reverse, but at least we should not aggravate the destruction,” Del Rosario said. MICHAELA DEL CALLAR/PNA/