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UNCLOS, 2016 ruling justify Sierra Madre grounding at Ayungin

Ayungin Shoal in the Spratlys Islands falls within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which provides the legal basis for the presence of the warship BRP Sierra Madre in the area that is also being claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In 2016, the Permanent Arbitration Court at the Hague declared that Ayungin Shoal, located 105 nautical miles west of Palawan, and Panganiban Reef are “within the EEZ and continental shelf of the Philippines” in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

As such, the Philippines enjoys the freedom to operate ships as outlined in Article 58 of UNCLOS, which states:

​​In the EEZ, all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy, subject to the relevant provisions of this Convention, the freedoms referred to in article 87 of navigation and overflight and of the laying of submarine cables and pipelines, and other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to these freedoms, such as those associated with the operation of ships, aircraft and submarine cables and pipelines, and compatible with the other provisions of this Convention. 

The international tribunal also ruled that China’s claims to maritime entitlements within their “nine-dash line,” which encroach upon the EEZ claims of the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, are “contrary to the convention (UNCLOS) and without lawful effect.”

Despite the ruling and China’s ratification of UNCLOS in 1996, Beijing has persistently claimed that the BRP Sierra Madre was “illegally grounded” in Ayungin Shoal. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian repeated the assertion in a press conference on May 6, saying:

If the Philippines truly wants to lower tensions in the South China Sea, they should immediately stop intruding the waters adjacent to China’s Nansha Qundao and Huangyan Dao, stop sending construction materials to the warship illegally “grounded” at Ren’ai Jiao (Ayungin Shoal).

China refers to Ayungin Shoal as Ren'ai Jiao, also known as Second Thomas Shoal.

Jian also urged the Philippines to cease its resupply missions and other naval operations amid heightened maritime tensions, including a Chinese coast guard’s water cannon attack on Filipino vessels.

Beijing previously invoked Article 5 of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed by China and ASEAN countries, which states that “the status of uninhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea should be maintained.”

In response, the Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement affirming that the BRP Sierra Madre “was deployed in 1999, years ahead of the DOC in 2002, and is therefore not a violation of the DOC.”

The DFA said the vessel was intentionally grounded in response to China’s illegal occupation and construction of artificial islands on Panganiban Reef in 1995.

It added that the country’s deployment of a military station in its own areas of jurisdiction is "an inherent right of the Philippines and does not violate any laws.” (KS)


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