MANILA — Itu Aba, the “rock” which is the biggest land feature in the controversial Spratlys archipelago is crucial in the Philippines’ suit against China, according to experts in international maritime law.
The Filipino experts explained that the description of Itu Aba as a “rock” under the definition of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) is a necessity in the country’s case against China.
The issue of Itu Aba being a rock or not nearly cost newly appointed Supreme Court Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza a seat in the high court.
Jardeleza wanted to remove a 14-paragraph discussion about Itu Aba from the memorial submitted by the government to the tribunal in The Hague last March.
The said section referred to Itu Aba as a “rock” that has entitlements under the Unclose to a 12-mile territorial sea but not a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Jardeleza’s claims were countered by international film Reichler and Martin saying that Itu Aba should be described as “a rock with a very limited entitlement.”
They added that removing the discussion in the memorial will negatively affect the case of Philippines.
They also raised the arguments to Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and to President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. President Aquino then decided for the discussion to be included.
“‘Rocks’ as defined under Article 121, Paragraph 3 of Unclos cannot have its own exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. ‘Rocks,’ however, can become the basis for projecting a 12 nautical mile territorial sea and 24 nautical mile contiguous zone around it,” said Peter Payoyo, an expert based in The Hague who was a former law professor at the University of the Philippines.
Payoyo added, “If Itu Aba is described as ‘rocks,’ then the State which owns (or has sovereign/territorial title over) Itu Aba cannot assert EEZ sovereign rights, nor can that State claim surrounding submerged features outside its 12 nautical mile radius as part of Itu Aba’s continental shelf on which it can build structures or installations,” Payoyo explained in a e-mail to the Inquirer.
Lawyers Reichler and Martin said that including Itu Aba in the memorial will give the Philippines an opportunity “to frame the issue.”
They also mentioned that the argument of the Philippines might be enough to convince the tribunal that Itu Abais a “rock that generates no more than 12 nautical miles, and this does not overlap with the Philippines’ EEZ or continental shelf.”
Itu Aba spawns an area of about half a square kilometer. It also lies right on the fringe of the 200 nautical mile EEZ of the Philippines. It used to be under the control of Taiwan. Over the years, it has developed an airstrip and soon a $100-million port.
Itu Aba is surrounded by Gaven Reef, McKeenan Reef, Johnson South Reef and the Kalayaan island group, including the Pag-asa (Thitu) and the Ayungin Shoal, claimed by the Philppines.
If Itu Aba will be considered as an “island,” its 200 nautical mile EEZ would reach Palawan province.