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Is Sabah Filipino or Malaysian?

Is Sabah Filipino or Malaysian?

The North Borneo dispute, also known as the Sabah dispute, is a territorial conflict between Malaysia and the Philippines over much of the eastern half of the state of Sabah. Prior to the formation of the Malaysian federation, Sabah was referred to as North Borneo. The Philippines, as the successor state to the Sultanate of Sulu, maintains a “dormant claim” on Eastern Sabah, arguing that the territory was only leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878 and that sovereignty was never ceded by the sultanate or later the republic. Malaysia, however, views this controversy as a “non-issue.” It interprets the 1878 agreement as a cession and asserts that the population of Sabah, including Eastern Sabah, exercised their right to self-determination when they chose to unite and form the Malaysian federation in 1963.

Let’s deeply analyze this complex issue.

Philippines’s Claims

The Sabah claim remains a contentious issue in the socioeconomic, political, and historical relations between Malaysia and the Philippines. Both nations have recently avoided addressing it to preserve their economic relationship and maintain global peace. Historically, North Borneo (now Sabah) was not merely a gift from the Sultanate of Sulu but was ceded by Brunei Sultan Muaddin to the Sulu Sultanate in the 1670s after the Taosugs of Sulu helped end Brunei’s civil war. Consequently, the Sultan of Sulu became the sovereign ruler of North Borneo.

In 1878, North Borneo was leased by Sultan Mohammad Jamalul Alam Kiram to Overbeck and Dent, then to the British North Borneo Company, and eventually to the Malaysian government when Malaysia was formed in 1963. Until 2013, the Sultan’s family and successors received an annual payment of 5,000 to 5,300 ringgit. However, Malaysia interprets this payment as a cession fee rather than lease rent. In 1962, Sultan Mohammed Eshmail Kiram ceded North Borneo to the Republic of the Philippines, allowing the Philippine government to bring the Sabah claim to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

North Borneo, now known as Sabah, is only 18 miles from the Philippines and is home to nearly a million people of Taosug descent, according to the 2015 census. In the Tagalog and Visayan languages, it is referred to as “Saba.” The Philippine government can challenge Malaysia’s claim to Sabah, including cession, self-determination, and continuous authority, through peaceful territorial dispute resolution.

Efforts to withdraw the claim have been made. On August 4, 1977, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos announced at the ASEAN Summit that the Philippines would take “definite steps to eliminate one of the burdens of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — the claim of the Philippine Republic to Sabah.” Despite Marcos’ repeated negotiations and reassurances to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1984, the statement was not implemented.

After Marcos’ fall, President Corazon Aquino attempted to publicly renounce the claim before the 1987 ASEAN Summit. Leticia Ramos Shahani introduced a bill in the Philippine Senate to repeal Republic Act 5446 in 1987. The bill faced widespread criticism for effectively abandoning the country’s claim to the land. Muslim members of Congress strongly opposed the legislation, arguing it would endanger the Sultanate of Sulu’s proprietary rights. Shahani eventually decided not to pursue the bill’s passage. Aquino’s successor, Fidel V. Ramos, also could not reach an agreement to relinquish the claim but publicly set the disagreement aside to repair relations with Malaysia. Later, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo similarly failed to reach a consensus on the issue. While the 2009 Philippine baseline law does not include Sabah within Philippine territory, the government maintained that this did not undermine the claim.

Malaysian Position

The controversy over Sabah originates from an 1878 treaty between the Sulu Sultanate, which controlled Sabah at the time, and the British North Borneo Company. The British company was granted the right to inhabit the eastern half of Sabah permanently in exchange for a fee paid to the Sultanate. After World War II, Sabah was handed over to British administration and became a crown territory. In 1963, following a referendum in which its people overwhelmingly chose to join the Federation of Malaysia, Sabah gained independence. The Philippines has consistently maintained that the 1878 agreement was a lease, while the British and Malaysian governments interpreted it as a land sale. To this day, Malaysia pays the Sulu Sultanate roughly USD 1,000 annually in accordance with the agreement.

On June 22, 1962, the Republic of the Philippines officially submitted a claim of sovereignty and possession over North Borneo to the British Ambassador in Manila. The following year, the British and Philippine governments held talks in London and issued a “Joint Final Communique” outlining their respective positions. They agreed to continue discussions through diplomatic channels. During President Diosdado Macapagal’s tenure, Sultan Mohammad Esmail Kiram of Sulu legally transferred all rights, proprietorship, title, dominion, and sovereignty over North Borneo to the Republic of the Philippines in 1962. This cession empowered the Philippine government to pursue the claim in an international court.

In 1963, the Federation of Malaya was reconstituted as Malaysia, with North Borneo becoming one of its states, Sabah. The new sovereign state inherited the British Crown’s interest in Sabah. After consulting Congress and foreign policy experts, President Macapagal chose to suspend recognition of the Federation of Malaysia until Malaysia adhered to the Manila Accord.

The Manila Accord, signed in 1963 by Indonesia, the Federation of Malaya, and the Philippines, aimed to resolve the North Borneo issue amicably. However, the issue resurfaced in 2013 when around 200 followers of Jamalul Kiram III, a claimant to the Sultanate of Sulu’s throne, arrived in Sabah’s Lahad Datu village to assert their territorial claim. This action brought the territorial dispute back to the international stage. To date, no resolution has been reached.

The controversy has strained diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Malaysia, both members of ASEAN. Efforts continue to seek a peaceful settlement to the dispute to protect human rights and prevent loss of life.

Background & Historical Context: 1878 Agreement

The 1878 agreement, originally written in Malay using the Jawi script, hinges on the ambiguous term “pajakkan.” This term was translated by Spanish linguists in 1878 and later by American anthropologists H. Otley Beyer and Harold Conklin in 1946 as “arrendamiento,” meaning “to lease.” However, British interpretations by historian Najeeb Mitry Saleeby in 1908, and William George Maxwell and William Summer Gibson in 1924, rendered “pajakkan” as “to grant and cede.” Another interpretation suggests that “pajakkan” could mean “to mortgage,” “pawn,” or even “wholesale.” In contemporary Tausug and Malay, “pajakkan” implies that the land is pawned in perpetuity for the annual cession money, requiring the sultanate to repay the full loan amount to redeem it.

The phrase “selama-lama,” meaning “forever” or “in perpetuity,” indicates a binding agreement extending beyond the life of the reigning sultan. The translation of the agreement also includes a controversial clause regarding the exclusive jurisdiction over the mentioned territory. In the original Jawi text and the British translation, Her Britannic Majesty (written as Duli Queen in Malay) is granted exclusive authority over the territory’s transfer, with arbitration solely decided by the Britannic Majesty’s Consul-General for Borneo. However, the Tausug translation replaces this with “Their Majesties Government,” adding to the ambiguity surrounding the agreement.

Throughout the British administration of North Borneo, the British government continued to make annual “cession money” payments to the sultan and his heirs, as clearly stated on the receipts. During a 1961 conference in London, where a Philippine and British panel convened to discuss the Philippine claim to North Borneo, the British panel informed Philippine congressman Jovito Salonga that the wording of the receipts had never been contested by the sultan or his heirs. In a 1963 Maphilindo meeting between the Philippine, Malayan, and Indonesian governments, the Philippine government relayed a request from the Sultan of Sulu for a payment of 5,000 from the Malaysian government. Malaysia’s then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, promised to follow up on the request upon returning to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia views the payment as an annual “cession” fee for the property, while the sultan’s descendants consider it “rent.”

1878 Appointment as Datu Bandahara, Rajah of Sandakan

In addition to the Sultan of Sulu’s grant of territories on the mainland of Borneo, another agreement signed on the same day appointed Baron de Overbeck as the supreme and independent ruler of these territories. He was given the titles of Datu Bandahara and Rajah of Sandakan, with absolute authority over the land’s inhabitants and property. The original Malay treaty used the term “anugerahi dan serahkan,” which translates to “give and cede.”

The Sulu claim is based on a treaty signed on January 22, 1878, by Sultan Jamalul Alam of Sulu, appointing Baron de Overbeck as Dato Bendahara and Raja Sandakan. However, an earlier treaty signed by Sultan Abdul Momin of Brunei on December 29, 1877, had already appointed Baron de Overbeck as Maharaja of Sabah and Rajah of Gaya and Sandakan. This treaty granted regions from Paitan to the Sibuco River, overlapping the Sulu Sultanate’s claim over Sabah.

According to the International Court of Justice in 2002, the Sultan of Sulu renounced sovereign powers over all his possessions to Spain, based on the “Bases of Peace and Capitulation” signed between the Sultan of Sulu and the Crown of Spain at Jolo on July 22, 1878. The Sultan declared Spain’s absolute dominion over the entire Sulu Archipelago and its dependencies.

The Madrid Protocol, agreed upon in 1885 by the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain, reinforced Spanish authority over the Philippine Islands. In the same deal, Spain relinquished all rights to North Borneo previously held by the Sultanate in favor of the United Kingdom. The protocol stated: “The Spanish Government renounces, in relation to the British Government, all claims of sovereignty over the territories of the continent of Borneo, which belong, or have previously belonged, to the Sultan of Sulu (Jolo). This includes the neighboring islands of Balambangan, Banguey, and Malawali, as well as all those within a zone of three maritime leagues from the coast, which form part of the territories administered by the British North Borneo Company.”

Confirmation of the cession of specific islands in 1903

On April 22, 1903, Sultan Jamalul Alam’s successor, Sultan Jamalul Kiram II, signed a document known as the “Confirmation of Cession of Certain Islands.” In this document, he granted and ceded additional islands, beyond those agreed upon in 1878, to the British North Borneo Company. These islands, situated near the mainland of North Borneo from Banggi Island to Sibuku Bay, were explicitly included in the new agreement.

In the 1903 agreement, the ambiguous term “pajakkan” was replaced with the phrase “kita telah keredhai menyerahkan kepada pemerintah British North Borneo,” ( BHAI YEH CROP KR DAIN JO HIGHLIGHT HA) which translates to “we have willingly surrendered to the Government of British North Borneo.” This wording clarified the Sulu Sultanate’s understanding of the 1878 agreement, emphasizing their voluntary cession of the territory.

The 1903 confirmation document explicitly stated that the newly indicated islands were part of the regions and islands mentioned in the January 22, 1878 agreement.

The 1939 Macaskie decision

In 1939, Dayang Dayang Hadji Piandao and eight other heirs initiated a civil case regarding the “cession money” owed to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu. This legal action followed the death of Sultan Jamalul Kiram II, who passed away childless in June 1936. Chief Justice Charles Frederick Cunningham Macaskie of the High Court of North Borneo adjudicated the case, determining each claimant’s entitled share.

Supporters of the Sulu Sultanate’s claim have frequently cited this verdict as evidence of North Borneo’s recognition of the sultan’s control over the region. However, it is essential to note that the ruling solely aimed to establish the rightful successors entitled to the annual “cession money” of 5,300 Malaysian ringgit.

Key Events & Tensions

A 60-year-old dispute over the sovereignty of Sabah, Malaysia’s second-largest state, has recently reignited, straining relations between Kuala Lumpur and Manila and complicating the broader sovereignty issues in the South China Sea. The tension began with a diplomatic spat on Twitter. In July, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. tweeted, “Sabah is not in Malaysia,” responding to a message from the US Embassy in Manila regarding donations to Filipinos deported from Sabah. Following Locsin’s tweets, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein summoned the Philippine ambassador for a demarche. By the end of August, Malaysia had filed a formal complaint with the United Nations, known as a note verbale, against the Philippines.

Kuala Lumpur asserts that the payments made by the British North Borneo Company were instalments toward the acquisition of the region from Sulu, and thus, Malaysia gained sovereignty after succeeding British Malaya. Meanwhile, nine Filipinos, including Hushin Kiram, a cousin of Sultan Muedzul, are facing the death penalty in a Malaysian jail, signaling Malaysia’s firm stance on retaining the oil and gas-rich Sabah. Kiram was arrested in 2013 after attempting to seize Sabah on behalf of his father, Jamalul Kiram III, a Sulu dynasty pretender.

So, why now?

Locsin’s tweets about Sabah came just hours after President Rodrigo Duterte stated in a national address that the Philippines’ claim to the South China Sea was “inutile” because China was already “in possession” of the disputed waters. This unplanned speech faced heavy criticism, as territorial claims are typically a nationalist rallying point. Locsin aims to reopen the Office of North Borneo Affairs, a section of the Department of Foreign Affairs that was closed during the Marcos regime. Congress is currently debating a bill to include the South China Sea regions, often referred to as the West Philippine Sea, and Sabah on Philippine passports, which already show a map of the country. Former Sabah Chief Minister Yong Teck Lee described this as a “provocative” move. Notably, in 2012, Manila instructed customs officials not to stamp Chinese passports bearing the contentious Nine-Dash Line, which marks China’s territorial claims.

Moreover, tens of thousands of Filipinos live in Sabah without proper documentation. The Philippines has traditionally refused to open a consulate in Sabah, considering it part of its territory.

Sabah in Maps

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has passed a substitute bill requiring the country’s map, including its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Sabah, to be printed on Philippine passports. Cagayan de Oro City Representative Rufus Rodriguez stated that this move aims to “emphasize and insist” on the country’s legal and historical rights over the West Philippine Sea and Sabah, bolstering the Philippines’ victory over China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands. Rodriguez authored House Bill, which has been integrated into the substitute bill to amend the Passport Law. “The inclusion of the map on our travel documents is a strong statement that we are asserting our sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea and our EEZ,” Rodriguez declared.

Strong Statements

Malaysia has firmly rejected what it labels as frivolous claims from the self-proclaimed group United Tausug Citizens (UTC), asserting themselves as the “rightful custodians of the Sultanate of Sulu Territory” over Sabah.

In a statement, Azalina declared, “This represents the latest frivolous and baseless attempt by a group to claim sovereignty over Malaysian territory and to extort unfounded payments from Malaysia.” She further highlighted Malaysia’s successful defense against a similar attempt by the self-proclaimed heirs of Sultan Jamalul Kiram II in Europe, which was based on a spurious arbitration award issued by rogue arbiter Dr. Gonzalo Stampa. “The Sulu Sultanate has been defunct for several decades and is not recognized by any sovereign State or international organization,” Azalina affirmed.

End Note

The Sabah Dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia remains unresolved to this day, rooted in conflicting interpretations of the 1878 Treaty between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Company, and subsequently the British government. The fundamental question of whether the Sultan of Sulu ceded Sabah to the British or merely leased it remains ambiguous. What is clear is that in 1963, Great Britain transferred Sabah, along with Sarawak and Singapore, to Malaysia to form the Malaysian Federation. This historical backdrop ensures that the Sabah conflict continues to strain Malaysia-Philippines bilateral relations, compounded by ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The timeline for resolution remains uncertain, leaving the matter unresolved after many years of contention.


Why Marcos South China Sea Policy is better than Duterte?

Why Marcos South China Sea Policy is better than Duterte?

The geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia is characterized by a complex interplay of national interests, historical tensions, and the strategic maneuverings of global powers. In this scenario, the South China Sea stands out as a particularly contentious region, with overlapping territorial claims and significant economic and security implications. As regional dynamics evolve, so too do the foreign policies of the countries involved. In this context, the Philippines has seen a marked shift in its approach from the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte to that of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. While Duterte’s tenure was noted for its conciliatory stance towards China, Marcos Jr. has adopted a more assertive policy, aligning more closely with the United States and emphasizing the defense of Philippine sovereignty. This shift reflects broader strategic calculations in response to China’s growing assertiveness and the need for stronger defense capabilities. The contrast between the two administrations provides a compelling case study in how nations balance between cooperation and confrontation in pursuit of their national interests.

Background: Duterte’s Approach

As the successor to President Aquino III, President Duterte adopted a markedly more cooperative stance toward China, seeking to avoid conflict over maritime sovereignty. Despite the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling largely favoring the Philippines, Duterte refrained from pursuing these convictions aggressively. Instead, he implemented pragmatic strategies rooted in Realpolitik and Rational Choice, shifting Philippine foreign policy from confrontation to a more nuanced approach. He preferred bilateral discussions over multilateral forums and supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative, aligning with his “Back to Domestic; Build, Build, and Build” campaign slogan focused on economic development and infrastructure. Duterte’s inward-looking strategy relied heavily on Chinese economic incentives to enhance the Philippines’ prosperity. This recalibrated foreign policy aimed for mutual benefits: China restrained the Philippines from assertively acting on the PCA ruling, while the Philippines gained economic and political advantages from Chinese infrastructure investments. Duterte’s approach strained the long-standing US-Philippines relationship, reflecting his vision for a multipolar world order and a distinct regional identity. This independent foreign policy garnered global attention and criticism, revealing the complex trade-offs and uncertainties involved. Consequently, the Philippines’ stance on SCS maritime and territorial claims softened under Duterte’s leadership.

Marcos Jr.’ Policy Shift

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has notably shifted Manila closer to the United States, diverging sharply from the path of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos appears to be the first Southeast Asian leader to decisively choose between the United States and China. Given the Philippines’ precarious position in the South China Sea and China’s growing regional dominance, Marcos Jr. may have concluded that maintaining a balance is no longer feasible and that, in the event of conflict, unwavering support from Washington is essential. The rising harassment of Philippine boats and marines stationed on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal by China has severely infuriated Marcos Jr., with incidents increasing recently.

In response to these challenges in the West Philippine Sea, President Marcos Jr. reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to maintaining Philippine sovereignty and defending its territory. At the 21st International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, he declared, “We will never allow anyone to detach it from the totality of the maritime domain that renders our nation whole.” Marcos emphasized that he has vowed to uphold this grave responsibility since his first day in office, stating, “I’m not going to give up. Filipinos are unyielding.” He reiterated that the government would make every effort to safeguard the Philippines’ territorial integrity in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Award. “International law, not our imagination, is the source of the boundaries we draw on our waters,” he asserted.

Marcos highlighted that the Philippines defines its boundaries based on international law, not “baseless claims.” He outlined the country’s intentions to improve its defense capabilities and strengthen its ties with foreign nations during his keynote speech at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. He emphasized that the Philippines would enhance its ability to safeguard its interests in both the global commons and its maritime domain as part of the Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept. “We will strengthen our ability to safeguard our interests in the global commons and in our own maritime domain as we work to preserve the rule of law in international affairs,” Marcos declared.

He stressed that diplomacy would continue to be a key component of building the Philippines’ defense capabilities. President Marcos also reaffirmed that ASEAN Centrality would remain a fundamental component of the country’s foreign policy. He noted that the Philippines would strengthen strategic alliances with Australia, Japan, and Vietnam, in addition to its relationship with the United States. The country would also seek closer ties with partners like the Republic of Korea and India. Marcos pointed out that cooperative efforts involving a small number of governments with common interests could “build into pillars that support the architecture of regional stability.” He mentioned pursuing trilateral cooperation in the Celebes Sea with Indonesia and Malaysia and expanding collaboration in the exclusive economic zone with Australia, Japan, and the United States.

Over the past year, the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone has been repeatedly targeted by China’s coast guard and allied fishing vessels, further straining relations between the two countries. Marcos stated that he has been in communication with “friends in the international community” and has met with his defense and security officers to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. “They have offered to help us with what the Philippines requires to protect and secure our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction,” he said.

The deterioration of ties with China coincides with Marcos’s efforts to strengthen defense ties with the US. Beijing is displeased with his expanded US access to military sites in the Philippines and the inclusion of joint exercises involving air and sea patrols over the South China Sea. The US-Philippines treaty obliges both nations to defend one another in the event of an attack, covering coastguard, civilian, and military vessels in the South China Sea.

Key Actions Under Marcos Jr.

Marcos Jr. emphasized Manila’s right to utilize South China Sea energy resources without first engaging China in a statement released on December 1, 2022. He vowed to “fight” for the rights that belong to his country. Given that the Philippines depend largely on imported fuel, his comments highlighted the urgency of exploring for oil and gas in the strategically significant sea. In the face of a more divided Southeast Asia, Marcos Jr. has resorted to striking a balance between his relations with China and the United States. However, sustaining strategic ambiguity is becoming more and more of a difficult balancing act every day. Beijing is applying more and more pressure. Chinese rocket debris was taken by force from the Philippine Navy in November by the Chinese coast guard.

In order to restart the nation’s slow economic growth, the new president desperately had to acquire investments amidst a severe financial crisis made worse by the pandemic. Beijing might be a trustworthy source, but Chinese investments and the sovereignty risks they pose are touchy political subjects. Protests by the general public against Chinese influence are not unusual in the Philippines, and they may pose a threat to the legitimacy of Marcos Jr.’s administration.

Asia’s strictest foreign investment regulations, found in the Philippines, limit foreign ownership in numerous areas to 40%. This restriction complicates potential agreements on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, even if the Philippines and China were to reach an understanding. Although both nations have shown interest in collaborating with non-governmental organizations for joint exploration, disputed claims have prevented Manila’s PXP Energy Corp, which holds exploration permits in the contested Reed Bank, from finalizing a mutually beneficial deal with China’s National Offshore Oil Corp.

The situation is further complicated by increased U.S. engagement with the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. allowed U.S. forces access to four additional Philippine military facilities, raising the total to nine. Under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), U.S. troops are permitted to rotate indefinitely for joint training, equipment prepositioning, and infrastructure development, including runways, fuel storage, and military housing. This move aligns with the Biden administration’s strategy of strengthening a regional security network to counter China, as well as with Philippines efforts to enhance its external defense, particularly in the South China Sea.

China reacted strongly to this development, particularly since two of the new U.S. locations are near Taiwan and southern China. Beijing accused the Philippines of providing staging areas for U.S. military operations, thereby compromising Chinese security. In response, Marcos stated that his administration has no plans to grant the U.S. access to additional military bases. He emphasized that China’s aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea initially prompted the U.S. military presence in several Philippine camps and locations. At a press conference with foreign correspondents in Manila, Marcos clarified, “The Philippines has no plans to create any more bases or give access to any more bases.”

When questioned about whether the presence of U.S. forces had provoked Chinese actions in the South China Sea, Marcos maintained that American troops were there in response to China’s actions. He cited incidents where Chinese coast guard ships used water cannons and lasers to block Philippine vessels. “These are reactions to what has happened in the South China Sea, to the aggressive actions that we have had to deal with,” he stated. China, on the other hand, blamed the Philippines for instigating conflicts by intruding into its territorial seas and violating an alleged agreement to remove an old Philippine navy vessel stationed at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. Marcos denied knowledge of any such agreement and declared it void if it ever existed.

Marcos emphasized that the Philippines must take more concrete actions beyond lodging protests concerning incidents in the South China Sea. He referred to a recent event where the Chinese coast guard blocked a routine troop supply run to the Second Thomas Shoal, resulting in a serious injury to a Philippine sailor. While Marcos condemned this as an illegal action, he noted that it did not constitute an armed attack. Despite filing numerous protests, he stressed the need for more substantial measures.

End Note

The contrast between the South China Sea policies of Duterte and Marcos Jr. signify the evolving nature of the Philippines’ approach to maritime sovereignty and international diplomacy. Duterte’s strategy prioritized economic gains through cooperation with China, often at the cost of territorial assertiveness and strained traditional alliances. In contrast, Marcos Jr.’s policy shift reflects a robust defense of Philippine sovereignty, reinforced by stronger ties with the United States and other regional allies. This strategic realignment addresses the immediate challenges posed by China’s assertiveness while positioning the Philippines as a proactive player in maintaining regional stability and upholding international law. As the geopolitical landscape continues to shift, the Marcos administration’s balanced yet assertive stance may provide a more sustainable and secure path for the Philippines in the contentious waters of the South China Sea.

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Philippines Air Force Joins Multi-Nation War Games in Australia to Counter China

Philippines Air Force Joins Multi-Nation War Games in Australia to Counter China

In an unprecedented move, the Philippines Air Force has embarked on its first overseas deployment in over six decades. This historic event sees the Philippines joining forces with U.S. and Australian fighter jets for combat practice in northern Australia amidst escalating tensions with China in the South China Sea. This strategic maneuver underscores the Philippines’ commitment to enhancing its defense capabilities and strengthening alliances in response to regional security challenges.

The Pitch Black War Games

The Pitch Black war games, a significant international air combat training activity, took place in Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory from July 12 to August 2, 2024. This large-scale exercise included four Philippine FA-50 fighter jets and 162 personnel among approximately 140 aircraft and over 4,000 personnel from 20 nations.

This year’s iteration was the largest in the exercise’s 43-year history, exposing participants to complex scenarios utilizing advanced aircraft and battlespace systems. Aircraft and personnel from the Philippines, Spain, Italy, Papua New Guinea, and embedded personnel from Fiji and Brunei participated for the first time, joining aircraft from countries such as France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and embedded personnel from Canada and New Zealand.

Aircraft operated primarily from RAAF bases in Darwin and Tindal in the Northern Territory, with additional tanker and transport aircraft at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland. Exercise Pitch Black is Australia’s premier activity for international engagement, held every two years to build stronger ties with like-minded nations.

A Historic Milestone

This deployment marks a significant moment in the history of the Philippines Air Force, as the first time since 1963 that it has taken combat aircraft abroad. On July 10, 2024, four FA-50s and 162 personnel from the Philippine Air Force arrived at RAAF Base in Darwin, marking the first-ever deployment of the country’s fighter jets for drills outside the Philippines.

Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore Pete Robinson expressed his honor at Australia being chosen for this significant deployment, highlighting the historic nature of the event. The decision to deploy four FA-50s instead of the initially planned six was made to retain more aircraft in the Philippines for domestic operational requirements.

The deployment of the FA-50s to the Pitch Black war games demonstrates the Philippines’ commitment to engaging in multinational military cooperation and improving its own defense capabilities. The FA-50s, which are light combat aircraft, are well-suited for training exercises that involve both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat scenarios. By participating in these exercises, the Philippines Air Force can gain valuable experience and insights into modern combat tactics and technologies.

Enhancing Capabilities

The vast airspace of the Northern Territory provides an ideal environment for enhancing a wide range of capabilities, focusing on the tactical execution of large force employment and offensive counter air and land operations in a multinational coalition environment. The war games involve not only dog fighting but also the use of advanced radar and missile systems for long-range engagements.

Philippine fighter jets worked alongside advanced aircraft such as the F-35A Lightning II, EA-18G Growler, and Su-30MKI Flanker, tackling complex problems against simulated adversaries and ground threats. This includes air-to-air refueling, reconnaissance, and airlift operations, enhancing the capabilities of all participating forces to operate together, improve readiness, and strengthen regional partnerships.

The FA-50s’ participation in these exercises allows the Philippine pilots to train in an environment that mimics real combat conditions. This exposure is crucial for building confidence and proficiency in handling advanced aircraft and executing complex missions. The experience gained from these exercises will be invaluable in guiding the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization efforts.

A United Front

The U.S. F-22 stealth fighter and Australia’s F-35A and F-18 are among the combat aircraft taking part in these war games. The U.S. sent F-22 jets from the 15th Wing based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, to train alongside Australia’s F-35A jets, improving interoperability between their armed forces.

Fast-jet pilots from the U.S. Marine Corps conducted training in offensive counter air, defensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defenses, and strike mission sets during the day and night, demonstrating the depth of interoperability between the two nations.

The collaborative efforts in the Pitch Black war games highlight the importance of interoperability and joint operations among allied forces. By training together, these forces can develop a better understanding of each other’s tactics, procedures, and capabilities. This level of cooperation is essential for effective multinational operations, especially in complex and dynamic combat environments.

The participation of the Philippines in this multinational exercise not only enhances its own defense capabilities but also strengthens its ties with key allies. The ability to operate seamlessly with U.S. and Australian forces is a strategic advantage for the Philippines, particularly in the context of regional security challenges.

The South China Sea Dispute

The South China Sea dispute between the Philippines and China has been a source of tension for many years. The crux of the dispute lies in overlapping territorial claims over the South China Sea, a strategic and resource-rich waterway. China’s extensive claims have led to several direct confrontations, including a clash at the Second Thomas Shoal on June 17, 2024, causing injuries to Filipino navy personnel and damage to military boats.

The encounters between the two nations have grown increasingly tense as Beijing continues to assert its claims to shoals in waters that Manila insists are within its exclusive economic zone. Despite these tensions, both sides have affirmed their commitment to deescalate tensions without prejudice to their respective positions. However, the geopolitical landscape in the South China Sea remains complex and fluid, posing significant challenges to regional stability and international law.

China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, such as the construction of artificial islands and the deployment of military assets, have heightened tensions with neighboring countries, including the Philippines. The strategic importance of the South China Sea, which serves as a major shipping route and is believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves, makes it a focal point of regional and global interest.

China’s Reaction

China’s reaction to the Pitch Black war games was significant. Following the announcement of the exercise, China launched drills in the Taiwan Strait in response to what it perceived as “separatist acts.” These drills involved heavily armed warplanes and staged mock attacks, demonstrating China’s ability to control the seas and prevent foreign involvement.

China’s military maneuvers are a clear signal of its willingness to assert its territorial claims and counter any perceived threats to its interests. The timing of these drills, just days after the announcement of the Pitch Black war games, underscores the geopolitical tensions in the region. China’s actions reflect its broader strategy of demonstrating military strength and deterring foreign intervention in what it considers its sphere of influence.

The Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games can be seen as a response to China’s assertiveness. By strengthening its defense capabilities and engaging in multinational exercises, the Philippines is signaling its determination to protect its territorial integrity and uphold international law. This strategic approach aims to deter potential aggression and contribute to regional stability.

The Philippines’ Defense Strategy

Despite having a mutual defense treaty with the United States, the Philippines is increasingly looking to its own air force and navy as the first line of defense. This shift in strategy is in response to the perceived threat from China, with Manila making concerted efforts to bolster its defense capability.

The Philippines’ defense strategy includes preserving holdings in the disputed sea, deterring coercive actions against Philippine vessels and citizens, and compelling Chinese recognition of and compliance with the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration Award. This multifaceted approach involves strengthening the country’s military capabilities, enhancing regional alliances, and leveraging international legal mechanisms to protect its interests.

In addition to strengthening its military capabilities, the Philippines is forging stronger defense ties with other countries. For instance, the Philippines and Japan recently signed a crucial military agreement permitting the deployment of their forces on each other’s soil, bolstering defense ties between Tokyo and Manila. This agreement, known as the Reciprocal Access Agreement, enhances interoperability and facilitates joint training and exercises, contributing to regional security.

The Philippines’ defense strategy also involves increasing investments in military modernization. The ongoing modernization program aims to equip the Armed Forces of the Philippines with advanced hardware and capabilities to address a wide range of security threats. This includes the acquisition of multirole fighter jets, radars, missile systems, frigates, helicopters, and submarines.

Modernization of the Military

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has embarked on a 15-year modernization program that started in 2012 and will continue through 2027. This program, also known as the Revised Armed Forces Modernization Act, aims to strengthen the AFP’s capability to address counterterrorism and internal threats.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently approved a significant military procurement plan, estimated at around $35 billion over the next ten years. This includes acquiring multirole fighter jets, radars, frigates, missile systems, helicopters, and the country’s first submarine fleet.

The modernization program is divided into three phases: Horizon 1 (2013-2017), Horizon 2 (2018-2022), and Horizon 3 (2023-2027). Each phase focuses on different aspects of capability development, with Horizon 3 emphasizing the acquisition of advanced systems and platforms to enhance the country’s defense posture.

Key elements of the modernization program include:

Multirole Fighter Jets: The acquisition of multirole fighter jets, such as the FA-50s, enhances the Philippines’ air defense and strike capabilities.

Frigates and Corvettes: The procurement of additional Jose Rizal-class frigates and missile corvettes improves the country’s naval capabilities, enabling it to protect its maritime interests and conduct various naval operations.

Missile Systems: The acquisition of missile systems, including

surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, enhances the country’s deterrence and defensive capabilities.

Submarine Fleet: The development of a submarine fleet provides the Philippines with a strategic asset for underwater defense and deterrence.

Regional Defense Relationships

The Philippines is actively seeking to establish more regional defense relationships. Recent defense agreements with Australia and Japan indicate a commitment to enhancing interoperability and strengthening defense ties. These agreements contribute to the Philippines’ defense strategy by enhancing its ability to respond to various security threats.

The agreement with Australia, known as the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), facilitates the rotation of Australian forces in the Philippines and vice versa. This agreement enhances joint training, interoperability, and capacity-building initiatives, strengthening the defense ties between the two countries.

Similarly, the Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan allows for closer defense cooperation, joint exercises, and logistical support. This agreement reflects the growing strategic partnership between Japan and the Philippines, driven by shared concerns over regional security and the need to uphold international norms.

The Philippines is also engaging in defense cooperation with other countries in the region, such as South Korea, India, and Vietnam. These partnerships involve joint training exercises, defense dialogues, and capacity-building initiatives, contributing to the overall security architecture of the region.

Implications and Future Developments

The Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games is a significant development in its defense strategy, signaling its commitment to enhancing operational readiness and capabilities. This move also underscores the Philippines’ willingness to collaborate with other nations in maintaining regional security.

By participating in these war games, the Philippines is sending a strong message to other countries in the region, including China. This could potentially deter aggressive actions in the South China Sea and contribute to regional peace and stability. However, it could also escalate tensions, highlighting the need for careful management to prevent conflict.

The experience gained from these exercises will be invaluable in guiding the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization efforts. As tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea, the country is demonstrating its commitment to enhancing its defense capabilities and ensuring preparedness for any eventualities.

The Philippines’ strategic approach involves strengthening its military capabilities, enhancing regional alliances, and leveraging international legal mechanisms to protect its interests. By doing so, the Philippines aims to deter potential aggression, uphold international law, and contribute to regional stability.

The future of the South China Sea dispute remains uncertain, with ongoing geopolitical tensions and competing territorial claims. However, the Philippines’ proactive stance and commitment to defense modernization signal its determination to navigate these challenges and safeguard its sovereignty.

In essence, the Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games is a historic milestone that reflects its evolving defense strategy and commitment to regional security. By enhancing its capabilities and strengthening its alliances, the Philippines is positioning itself as a key player in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and beyond.

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Philippines Accuses Chinese Ships of Blocking Medical Evacuation

Philippines Accuses Chinese Ships of Blocking Medical Evacuation

I. Introduction

The South China Sea has been a hotbed of territorial disputes for years, with several countries including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei claiming overlapping parts of the maritime region. The area is rich in natural resources and is a vital commercial waterway, making it a strategic point of contention. One such disputed area is the Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines and Renai Reef in China. The shoal is within the 200-nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone of the Philippines but is also claimed by China.

II. Details of the Incident

On July 10, 2024, the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of trying to block the evacuation of a sick soldier from an “illegally grounded warship” at Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippine Navy stated that the patient was taken from the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting vessel that was run aground at Second Thomas Shoal 25 years ago, to Camp Ricarte Station Hospital in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. The Philippine coastguard claimed it had “faced numerous obstructing and delaying manoeuvres” by its Chinese counterpart but “remained steadfast”. This incident marked another escalation in the ongoing territorial dispute between the two nations.

III. Philippine Government’s Response

The Philippine government has strongly condemned the alleged actions of the Chinese vessels. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) lodged a diplomatic protest against China, calling the incident a “blatant infringement of Philippine sovereignty”. The incident has also stirred up nationalist sentiments among the Philippine public, putting pressure on the government to take a tougher stance against China.

IV. China’s Reaction

China rebuked the Philippines, accusing it of “deliberately misleading” the international community. In a statement, the China Coast Guard said it had allowed the Philippines to evacuate the ill person under “humanitarian considerations” and had “monitored and verified” their actions in accordance with the law. Chinese coastguard spokesman Gan Yu stated that the “relevant Philippine parties ignored the facts, maliciously hyped up [accusations], and deliberately misled international cognition”. He affirmed that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Nansha Islands, also known as the Spratly Islands, including Renai Reef and its surrounding waters.

V. International Reactions

The escalating tensions between China and the Philippines have drawn international attention and elicited responses from various leaders and experts. Collin Koh, a maritime affairs expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, suggests that a second legal defeat for China in the international court would not reflect well on China’s reputation. He believes that the seven years since the last international ruling is a long time, and a new case building on the previous one would inject renewed vigor into global scrutiny of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

US President Joe Biden has warned China that the US will defend the Philippines in case of any attack in the disputed South China Sea. This reiteration of the US’s “ironclad” defense commitment to the Philippines underscores the geopolitical implications of the dispute.

VI. Historical Context

The South China Sea dispute is not a recent development but has deep historical roots. The region has been a point of contention for centuries, with various Southeast Asian nations asserting their claims over different parts of the sea. The modern dispute, however, can be traced back to the 20th century when several nations began to assert their sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

The Second Thomas Shoal, in particular, has been a flashpoint in the dispute. The Philippines grounded the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting naval vessel, on the shoal in 1999 to reinforce its claim. China, however, views this as an illegal occupation and has maintained a constant maritime presence around the shoal.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a case against China’s claims in the South China Sea. The court declared China’s “nine-dash line” claim, which covers nearly the entire South China Sea, as having no legal basis. However, China rejected the ruling, and the decision did not lead to a significant change in the status quo.

VII. Analysis

The ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea has significant geopolitical implications. For China, asserting its claims in the South China Sea is a matter of national pride and a demonstration of its growing global power. It is also strategically important due to the sea’s rich natural resources and its importance as a commercial waterway.

For the Philippines, the dispute is about protecting its territorial integrity and its rights to exploit the resources within its exclusive economic zone. The recent incident could further strain Philippines-China relations and push the Philippines to seek stronger security ties with other countries, particularly the United States.

The involvement of international leaders and organizations like the US, ASEAN, and Japan further complicates the issue. The US, in particular, has been vocal in its support for the Philippines and its opposition to China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. This could potentially escalate tensions between the US and China, two of the world’s superpowers.

VIII. Conclusion

The South China Sea dispute continues to be a complex issue involving territorial claims, national pride, and international law. The recent incident involving the Philippines and China is just the latest in a series of escalating tensions in the region.

As tensions escalate, it is crucial for all parties involved to engage in peaceful dialogue and negotiations to prevent further conflicts. The role of international law and multilateral institutions is also critical in resolving these disputes and ensuring the preservation of the region’s rich biodiversity.

However, the resolution of the South China Sea dispute is not just about resolving territorial claims. It is also about managing the rise of China as a global power, maintaining regional stability, and upholding the rules-based international order. The way this dispute is handled could set a precedent for other territorial disputes around the world and shape the future of international relations in the Indo-Pacific region.

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