A Primer on Philippine Territorial Claims

Arab News

A Primer on Philippine Territorial Claims

by Manuel L. Quezon III


In recent weeks, the Spratlys have been in the news, and questions raised about the rather mysterious policy of the Philippine government as far as explorations for oil and gas in cooperation with Vietnam and China, which have competing claims to territory the Philippines claims sovereignty over. Every president has found it advantageous to assert Philippine claims to territory. One such president was Diosdado Macapagal, whose first claim to national fame was in 1948, when he raised the Philippine flag in the Turtle Islands.

I recently asked a visiting Spanish historian what the Spaniards considered the Philippines during the colonial era. His answer, which he sketched on a map, would surprise you. He said that for the Spaniards, the Philippines covered, a vast area extending from what present-day Filipinos consider the Philippines, but stretching as far as Guam and Saipan in the Marianas and the Caroline Islands. This territory is commemorated to this day by one of the obscure titles of the King of Spain, Rey de las Islas del Poniente.

Up to 1815, the Philippines were considered, essentially, an extension of the Viceroyalty of Mexico, and after Mexican independence from Spain, we were a province directly governed from Madrid.

Manila, in turn, after 1815, had jurisdiction over the Marianas and the Carolines. Guam, in the Marianas, was the place that Spain exiled troublesome Filipinos, for example, like Tandang Sora. According to the Spanish historian, the Northern Marianas had, as its last governor, a Filipino-born Spaniard, Eugenio Blanco, who suppressed a local rebellion by means of volunteer troops from Macabebe, Pampanga, in a ferocious campaign called “El Tiempo del Macabebe” in the literature of the era.

What seems to have happened, when Spain was defeated by the US in the Spanish-American War, was that the Americans only expressed interest in only part of the colonial real estate of Spain. And so, in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, what Spain ceded to America was the Philippines and the Marianas, while America allowed Spain to retain the Carolines. The Carolines, in turn, were sold by Spain to Germany in 1899. The Spanish historian said that the sale was contested in the Cortes by a friend of Rizal.

Now as for Filipinos, our own conception of what constituted the Philippines was limited compared to the Spanish view. It’s commemorated in our flag: the rays of the sun representing the nucleus of our independent state, the eight provinces placed under martial law when our revolution began in August, 1896.

And the three stars representing the territorial aspirations of our founding fathers: Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao. The efforts of our first Republic in 1898 were to assert the sovereignty of the First Republic over these areas. And they ranged from successfully encouraging the Federal Republic of the Visayas based in Iloilo to recognize the Republic, which it did, and the Sultan of Sulu to incorporate his realm into our Republic, which was less successful. But aside from the Sulu Sultanate, from the start, our Republic claimed the rest of Mindanao, over which Spain had already asserted its sovereignty.

Going back to the Treaty of Paris, the territory ceded by Spain became the working definition for our country, as it prepared for the restoration of independence by 1946. However, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that drafted our 1935 Constitution noticed some problems.

Part of the Constitutional Convention’s published records, includes a report signed by Nicolas Buendia, former senator (and yes, of Buendia Avenue fame), who was Chairman of the Committee on Territorial Delimitation. He said that if you look at the Batanes Islands, the limit of our territory in that area should be the Bashi Channel.

But the Treaty of Paris, according to Buendia’s committee report, was based on erroneous Spanish maps used in a 1895 agreement between Spain and Japan, which then owned Tiawan, and so the quoted lines of latitude and longitude in Spain’s agreement with the US placed the border at the Balintang Channel. Buendia recommended that the Philippines, in its new Constitution, fix the error so as to remove all room for doubt. But it seems the report wasn’t adopted in full, because instead of adopting the technically complete list of revised latitudes and longitudes, the 1935 Constitution was quite brief: the Philippines was the territory ceded by Spain to America in 1898 plus the Turtle Islands as agreed upon by Britain and the US in 1930.

The result is that, to this day, Taiwan questions our border with it in the Bashi Channel. However, to their credit, what the Taiwanese want is an international agreement to settle the border question. At least the question of the Turtle Islands was explicitly referred to in the 1935 Charter.

Which brings us back to Diosdado Macapagal and his finally raising the Philippine flag on the Turtle Islands in 1948, or 18 years after the treaty signed by the US and Great Britain recognizing them as part of our territory. But as for other territory, dealing with a new country and not the US, the British would be quite cunning, indeed.

As we prepared to rejoin the family of independent nations in 1946, Great Britain made moves to take the North Borneo territory leased by the Sultan of Sulu to a private company, under its own authority. What was land leased to the British North Borneo Company was declared crown territory instead. If the Philippines could claim to be the successor, as sovereign, of territories once owned by the Sulu Sultanate, by the late 1950s the future Malaysia was preparing to assert sovereignty over territories once ruled by Great Britain in its colony of Malaya.

To be sure, we’d first asserted our claims to North Borneo in 1946, under the advice of former Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison, working as an adviser to our new Department of Foreign Affairs. A Foreign Office spokesman said it was rather cheeky of the newly independent Philippines to do this.

But it was Diosdado Macapagal of Turtle Islands fame, who most vigorously asserted our claim to North Borneo, or Sabah as we call it, to the extent that he broke off diplomatic relations with newly independent Malaysia and formed an alliance with Indonesia, pursuing its own quarrels at the time with Malaysia.

President Marcos went beyond asserting the claim.

We’ll look into that, next week.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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