The government will submit a 300-year-old map of the Philippines to a United Nations arbitral tribunal to support its petition to nullify Chinaâ€™s claim to Philippine territory in the South China Sea.
Published in Manila by the Jesuit friar Pedro Murillo Velarde in 1734, the map shows Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), off the coast of Zambales province, as part of the Philippines.
China seized Panatag Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc, after a two-month standoff between Chinese and Philippine coast guard vessels in 2012.
Without military muscle to retake the shoal, the Philippines went to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos) in January 2013 and asked the UN body to clarify the entitlements of claimants to territory in the South China Sea.
China has refused to take part in the arbitration, insisting that it has â€œundisputed sovereigntyâ€ over nearly all of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.
The Murillo Velarde map â€œwould certainly present the side of the Philippines when it comes to any historical basis of its claim to some territories in the West Philippine Sea,â€ presidential spokesMAn Edwin Lacierda said on Monday, using the Philippine name for parts of the South China Sea within the countryâ€™s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
â€œWe believe we have a strong case [in] the Itlos,â€ Lacierda told reporters.
He said China based its claim to most of the South China Sea on â€œhistorical titleâ€ to the strategic waterway.
But the Murillo Velarde map would show the historical basis of the Philippine claim and support its effort to resolve the dispute according to international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Lacierda said.
Acquired at auction
Businessman Mel Velasco Velarde acquired the Murillo Velarde map when it was auctioned off by Sothebyâ€™s in London on Nov. 4 last year. He paid the equivalent of P12 million for the map and donated it to the National Museum.
The map remains in London, however, waiting to be submitted to the Itlos as evidence of the Philippinesâ€™ claim to its parts of the South China Sea.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Monday that the Philippine legal team would look at the mapâ€™s value to the arbitration case.
An Itlos ruling for the Philippines is unlikely to make China back off in the South China Sea, as the tribunal has no muscle to enforce its decisions.
But a ruling for the Philippines will certainly add to international opinion against Chinaâ€™s assertive behavior in the South China Sea that the United States has described as â€œout of stepâ€ with international norms.
China has been reclaiming land around reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the middle of the South China Sea for the past 18 months, including at reefs claimed by the Philippines.
Recent satellite images showed barracks, port facilities and at least one airstrip under construction, indicating that China intends to use the artificial islands it is building for military purposes.
The United States has demanded an â€œimmediate and lastingâ€ halt to Chinaâ€™s land reclamation, and said that it would keep up sea and air patrols in the region to ensure freedom of navigation, indicating support for its allies, the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan in the territorial disputes,
Besides the Philippines and Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea.
Japan is locked in a territorial dispute with China over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
The United States has been calling global attention to Chinaâ€™s land reclamation in the South China Sea.
At the conclusion of the Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Germany on Sunday, the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Canada and Italy were expected to issue a statement of concern over any unilateral action to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas, referring to Chinaâ€™s increasingly aggressive behavior in the region.
Would China listen?
The DFA on Monday said it hoped China would heed the G-7 concern and stop its island-building in the South China Sea.
Assistant Secretary Charles Jose, spokesman for the DFA, said only China could stop the land reclamation.
â€œIf China wills it, if it decides, it can stop the reclamation work,â€ Jose said. â€œOnly China can decide to stop [it].â€
â€œAt this point,â€ however, it appears that China is not halting land reclamation in the South China Sea, he said.
But the Philippines hopes that the expression of concern by the G-7 will prompt China to reconsider, he added.
Jose said the Philippine legal team would study the value of the Murillo Velarde map to the arbitration case against China.
â€œWe are glad that this rare map is in the possession of a Filipino,â€ Jose said.
No conflict with Chinese
In MalacaÃ±ang, Lacierda said that despite the South China Sea dispute, the Philippines had â€œno conflict with the Chinese people.â€
He said the Philippines continued to establish good relations with the Chinese. â€œWe certainly look forward to better relations with China,â€ he added.
Lacierda said President Aquino was scheduled to keynote Monday nightâ€™s joint celebration of the 117th anniversary of Philippine Independence, the 40th anniversary of Philippines-China diplomatic relations and the 14th Filipino-Chinese Friendship Day of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry at the Philippine International Convention Center.â€”With a report from Christine O. AvendaÃ±o