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Huangyan Island: The Philippines' inconsistent rhetoric

Ding Duo , Zhong Hui

The Chinese Coast Guard ship performs a patrol mission in the waters near Huangyan Island, South China Sea, September 22, 2023. /CFP
The Chinese Coast Guard ship performs a patrol mission in the waters near Huangyan Island, South China Sea, September 22, 2023. /CFP

The Chinese Coast Guard ship performs a patrol mission in the waters near Huangyan Island, South China Sea, September 22, 2023. /CFP

Editor's note: Ding Duo, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is the deputy director and an associate research fellow at the Research Center for Ocean Law and Policy, the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. Zhong Hui, a special commentator for CGTN, is an assistant researcher at the Division of International Exchanges, the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, and the Secretary at the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea. The article reflects the authors' opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

According to the China Coast Guard spokesperson, four Philippine personnel illegally intruded in certain areas of China's Huangyan Island on January 28, and the China Coast Guard warned them to leave in accordance with the law.

There have been many concerns about the situation at Huangyan Island, but some international commentators don't understand what's going on or how the Chinese view this issue. They believe that 12 years ago, the Philippines' 10-week standoff with China ultimately resulted in its loss of Huangyan Island, which is claimed by both countries, and after protests and attempts by China to put serious but unofficial pressure on Philippine agricultural exports, the Philippine government brought its dispute with China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The international media is also full of unilateral rhetoric from the Philippines, with China described as a hegemonic neighbor who bullies small countries.

This narrative is different from the actual situation and deliberately avoids the historical context and initial state of the Huangyan Island issue. Over the years when China exercises sovereign jurisdiction over Huangyan Island, fishermen from China's coastal Hainan and Guangdong Provinces, as well as Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, have operated in the area on a regular basis. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, government agencies have also carried out various scientific research projects on Huangyan Island.

Before 1997, the Philippines had never challenged China's sovereignty over Huangyan Island, nor had it laid any territorial claim to it. The representatives or high-level officials of the relevant departments of the Philippine government have repeatedly stated in government documents or letters that the territorial boundaries of the Philippines are confirmed by three international treaties and that Huangyan Island is not within the territory of the Philippines. But in April 1997, the Philippines turned its back on its previous position that Huangyan Island was not part of the Philippine territory.

When it comes to territorial sovereignty disputes, some basic principles need to be followed. For example, estoppel is a rule of international law that bars a party from going back on its previous representations when those representations have induced reliance or some detriment on the part of others. The international judicial practices and state practices show that a clear and unambiguous representation (such as a declaration or note) made by an authorized public official on behalf of a state with respect to a fact, particularly a territorial issue, is binding on that state. According to the principle of estoppel, since the Philippines has formally recognized that Huangyan Island is not within its territory, any subsequent claims of sovereignty over it are not in accordance with international law.

The Philippines tried many times to occupy Huangyan Island in the past two decades. Why would the Philippines blatantly provoke China and take many unilateral actions? The Philippines is an ally of the U.S. and has been a critical pillar for U.S. military activities in Southeast Asia. Against the backdrop of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, the growing American interest in the South China Sea had probably stimulated and encouraged the Philippines.

Recently, with the support of the U.S., the Philippines has indulged in maritime provocations in a hyped manner, making emotional and inflammatory statements. The Chinese side tried to communicate with the Philippines through a diplomatic approach, but some of the Philippine officials preferred to resort to the microphone and making irresponsible comments through the media.

In the past, China and the Philippines made appropriate arrangements for Filipino fishermen in the waters near Huangyan Island. The premise was that Philippine fishing boats cannot enter the lagoon, do not fish for rare marine life, and do not damage the ecological environment. At the same time, Philippine maritime forces were not allowed to rush into the waters of Huangyan Island or to expel Chinese fishermen. Such preconditions reflected China's sovereignty and jurisdiction over Huangyan Island, while the interim measures were based on China's goodwill to the Philippines. If the Philippines put its policies on a distorted view, without fully understanding China's goodwill and the active measures it has taken to resolve the issue, inevitably this will have a negative impact on the future.

A Chinese diplomatic vehicle leaves the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila, December 11, 2023. /CFP
A Chinese diplomatic vehicle leaves the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila, December 11, 2023. /CFP

A Chinese diplomatic vehicle leaves the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila, December 11, 2023. /CFP

Given conflicts and instabilities seen in other regions, China has many successful experiences with its neighbors in dealing with land boundary and maritime disputes. However, China's fundamental position is that it will not under any circumstances give up its sovereignty over any part of its territory. Any attempt to infringe upon China's sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests will be met with strong reactions and responses, the Huangyan Island being a case in point.

The Philippines' provocation against China on the South China Sea issue has not been supported by ASEAN countries. In fact, over the past two decades, the mechanisms established in accordance with the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN countries have achieved fruitful results in maritime governance and cooperation. 

Considering the situation in the South China Sea and maritime trends, certain parties involved in disputes should realize that the trust built through joint efforts by China and ASEAN countries is extremely precious. Only through comprehensive, effective, complete, and faithful implementation of the declaration can political trust continue to accumulate, ensuring regional peace and stability.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com. Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.) 

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