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Looking back at the Spratly Islands issue

By Renato Perdon
Sydney. Australia
July 10, 2016


The forthcoming decision of the international tribunal concerning the case filed by the Philippines questioning China’s ‘nine-dash’ line claim based on its historical rights deserves should be re-visited by Filipinos to have a clear idea on what the problem was all about. The Philippines formally lodged in arbitration case under the UN’s 1982 Convention of the Law of the Sea, known as UNCLOS in January 2013.

The Philippine case comprises 15 points that seek to clarify its rights to exploit its EEZ and challenges Chinese activities in South China Sea, particularly on fishing, dredging and law enforcement patrols, including Beijing’s reclamation and construction on seven reefs in the Spratlys.  Also included in the case is China’s recent effective control of the Scarborough Shoal which the Philippines is also seeking a ruling that shows that the shoal sits entirely within the Philippines’ EEZ.

It will be remembered that Beijing issued earlier the controversial ‘nine-dash line’ as the basis of its claim in South China Sea. It was created in the late 1940s and used on official Chinese maps. The line bisects the EEZs of several other countries and reaches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

Before we look back, it is worth citing what the late General Carlos P. Romulo said about the issue, covering not only the Spratlys but also the Paracels islands. General Romulo said then: ‘It is obvious from the Treaty [with Japan] that the Paracels and the Spratlys were not ceded to any country but are subject to the disposition of the Allies in the last World War. By no means, therefore, can any single country acquire sovereignty over the Paracels and the Spratlys by the use or display of force in the vicinity. Therefore, we regret to say that such an act would be in violation of international law as well as the Charter of the United Nations.’

The Spratly Islands problem resurfaced as one of the controversial issues during the Arroyo government in connection with its dealing with China. The government was caught in a quicksand that was slowly pulling it down, beyond salvation. Many are aware of ‘Hello Garcia’, the fertiliser scam, and the much later NBN-ZTE controversies. But it was Spratlys which was in the forefront of controversies that the then Arroyo administration wishes to disappear, but it resurfaced during the last dying days of the Arroyo government when it signed and agreement with China and Vietnam to undertake a joint seismic study in the disputed Spratly islands.

Added to the controversy was the fact that political observers noted that the contract that was signed also included a part of the Philippines’ area of jurisdiction, therefore allowing foreign countries to exploit Philippine resources. Critics are accusing the action of then President Arroyo as unconstitutional and serious grounds for impeachment.

Why is the Spratlys important to the Philippines?

The ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ reported in 1995 that the group of islets and reefs, commonly known as Spratlys, believed ‘to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits and bruited about as the next Middle East that could be the next point of conflict in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly so that China is adamant in its claim of territorial jurisdiction over 80% of the South China Sea. Recent Chinese official statements confirmed that the Nash islands, as they called the Spraltys, have been inhabited by them since time immemorial.

Australia, like any country in the region, was alarmed at China’s position on the controversy, which is a total claim to almost the entire South China Sea and an accompanying military build-up in the islands would allow China to dominate the area. It added that any action in the South China Sean could result in increased tension in the whole Asia-Pacific region. The South China Sea is one of the busiest sea routes in the region.

The Spratlys issue has already brought tension among the members of ASEAN, particularly among Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all claiming territorial jurisdiction in whole or in part over the islands, not to mention Taiwan’s claim over the area too. China’s claim of 5.1 million square kilometres of sea cut across Malaysia’s gas fields off Sarawak, some Vietnamese oil discoveries, part of the 200km of territorial sea of the Philippines, and part of the Natuna gas field of Indonesia.

The meeting held in Manila in late 1998 underscored the importance of resolving the issue for the peace and security of the region. The tension between countries in the region caused a diplomatic row between China and the Philippines in 1994, with the latter lodging a formal diplomatic protest over the movement of Chinese military men to the islands. There was also a separate incidents noted not so long ago involving Malaysian forces vs. Filipino naval forces and Vietnamese forces vs. Philippine air force elements that further confirmed the tension over the Spratlys.

A couple of years ago, the Australian press reported that China’s determination to eventually gobble up the entire disputed area is evident in the construction of 8 Chinese military structures on Mischief Reef, part of the Spratlys which the Philippine claimed in 1978 and called the ‘Kalayaan’ (Freedom) Islands Groups. Mischief Reef is east of the Philippines’Palawan Island and 650 nautical miles from China’s southern island of Hainan. There have been no less than 30 outposts constructed on these South China Sea islands over the past few years by five of the claimant countries.

In the Philippines, the Spratly islands came to prominence when, in 1956, a successful lawyer-businessman, known to many as ‘Vice-Admiral’ Tomas Cloma, Sr., issued an open notice to the world about his claim to the group of islands, islets, coral reefs, shoals, and sand cays comprised within what he called ‘Freedomland’ and the nearby seven-island group, the Spratly islands. He said he discovered the islands during many fishing expeditions to the South China Sea between 1947 and 1956.

Tomas Cloma, Sr., was born in Panglao, Bohol in the Visayas on 18 September 1904 to Spanish settler Ciriaco Cloma and a Bohol-born maiden, Irena Arbolente. An adventurer by nature, he went to Manila at the age of 15 years and worked his way to complete his high school education at the Arellano High School in Tondo, Manila. Subsequently, he worked for the Manila Railroad Company, now the Philippine National Railways, at its main Tutuban station. It was at the railway company that he became a licensed telegraph operator. This new qualification brought him to San Fernando, La Union, north of Manila, where he was assigned. It was there that he met lovely Victoria Luz Borromeo Galves, who later became his wife.

To further the education of the newly weds, the couple decided to move back to Manila where Victoria took up a course in nursing, while he pursued his law degree at the Far Eastern University while working for the ‘Manila Bulletin’, a national newspaper. He worked as assistant editor of the shipping section of the ‘Bulletin’ and was also assigned to cover the Senate and labour beats where he made friends with influential people who helped him achieve his life ambition – to go back to his roots in Bohol as an accomplished man.

A business minded person, Cloma established the Commercial Information Service which published a shipping manifesto for all incoming and outgoing cargoes in the Philippines. Later, he formed the Dagohoy Trading Shipping Company, consisting of passenger sailboats ferrying people on oversized outriggers from Lucena in Quezon province, and the Visayas.  The Visayas Fish Corporation came later.

Another interest during this period was a successful lighterage business with three tugboats plying the Pasic River.

The increase in the number of tugboats he operated resulted in the idea of a private nautical school, based in Manila. The Philippine Maritime Institute, popularly known today asPMI College, was born and established by Cloma in 1948, with 25 students on a lonely barge docked along the Pasig River behind the old PLDT building, Magallanes Drive, Intramuros, Manila.

From a small group of students in 1948, the PMI College was granted recognition by the Department of Education in 1950. It expanded and its most recent records show an enrolment of more than 25,000 students spread throughout its three campuses in Manila, Quezon City and Tagbilaran City in Bohol province, and became the biggest nautical school in the Philippines.

Fondly called by friends and admirers as ‘Admiral Tomas Cloma’s important role in contemporary history, came when in one of his fishing expeditions in the later 1940s, he ‘discovered’ a batch of uninhabited islands and newly emerged reefs just off Palawan in the South China Sea. The location was a rich fishing ground. The idea of claiming the islands was discussed with his friends, such as the late Philippine President and Foreign affairs Secretary Carlos P. Garcia, a fellow Boholano, and Senator Lorenzo Tañada. He called the islands ‘The Free Territory of Freedomland.’

In 1956, he filed an open notice to the world at the United Nations to signify his intentions and stated that Filipino settlers occupied some of the islands and governed themselves according to the Filipino customs and traditions under Philippine laws. A few problems with other foreign troops were, however, experienced by the settlers, mainly Vietnamese and Taiwanese forces.
Now back to the disputed Spratly islands. In 1956, Cloma wrote to the Philippine government concerning his group’s activities undertaking survey and occupation work ‘in a territory in the South China Sea outside of Philippines waters and that his group was claiming ownership of the ‘unoccupied’ territory based on ‘the rights of discovery and/or occupation.’ Subsequently, Cloma established a separate government for the ‘Free Territory of Freedomland’ and requested a ‘protectorate’ status of the islands from the Republic of thePhilippines.

In an official reply to Cloma, the Philippine government, through then Vice-President and Foreign Affairs Secretary Carlos P. Garcia, stated that it regards Cloma’s ‘Freedomland’ as ‘res nullius’ but clarified the status of the seven-island group known internationally as the Spratlys.

The Philippine Government told Cloma that ‘the government considers these islands as under the ‘de facto’ trusteeship of the victorious Allied Powers of the Second World War, as a result of the Japanese Peace Treaty, signed and concluded in San Francisco, on 8 September 1951, where Japan renounced all its rights, title and claim over the Spratly islands and to the Paracel Islands, and there being no territorial settlement made by the Allied Powers, up to the present with respect to their disposition.

It follows, therefore, that as long as this group of islands remain in that status, it is equally open to economic exploitation and settlement by nationals of any member of the Allied Powers on the basis of equality of opportunity and treatment in social, economic and commercial matters relating thereto.’

The Foreign Affairs Department added that the Philippines is one of the Allied Powers which defeated Japan in the Second World War, and is also a signatory power to the Japanese Peace Treaty.

The important of the Spratly islands and islets, which compose only one-sixth of the entire area of 80,000 square nautical miles, to the security of the Philippines was already evident in the last part of Garcia’s statement in the 1950s when he said: ‘In view of the geographical location of these group of islands and islets embraced within ‘Freedomland’, proximity to the western territorial boundaries of the Philippines, their historical and geological relations to the Philippine archipelago, their immense strategic value to our national defence and security, aside from their economic potential which is admittedly considerable in fishing, coral and sea products, and in rock phosphate, assuredly the Philippine Government does not regard with indifference the  economic exploitation and settlement of these uninhabited and unoccupied groups of islands and islets by Philippine nationals so long as they are engaged in furtherance of their legitimate pursuits.’

Philippine policy on the Spratlys islands was clearly manifested when the Philippine government sent notes to Manila’s Embassies on the Republic of China and Republic of Vietnam in 1972 stating that the ‘Kalayaan’ group, sometimes referred to as the Spratlys, ‘had been acquired by right of occupation [by the Philippines] …’

Commenting on the issue, the late General Carlos P. Romulo said in 1972 that: ‘the Philippines has every right to feel the necessity to securing this area [Spraltys] for its protection. In the Treaty of Peace with Japan, signed in San Francisco in 1951, the following provisions is mentioned with respect to the Paracels and the Spratlys: ‘ (f) Japan renounces all rights, title and claims to the Spratly Islands,’ (Article 2 of the treaty)…. It is obvious from the Treaty that the Paracels and the Spratlys were not ceded to any country but are subject to the disposition of the Allies in the last World War.

‘By no means, therefore, can any single country acquire sovereignty over the Paracels and the Spratlys by the use of or display of force in the vicinity therefore. We regret to say that such an act would be in violation of International Law as well as the Charter of the United Nations.’

It is in this scenario that the Philippines case vs China came into the picture. The Philippines unilaterally brought an arbitration case against China concerning certain issues in theSouth China Sea, including the legality of China’s ‘nine-dotted line’ claim over the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  

The People’s Republic of China considers the Spratly and Paracel islands as integral part of the Ming Dynasty and the ‘nine-dash’ line claim covers the largest portion stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan. In 1947, China issued a map detailing its claims, now covered by the ‘nine-dash’ line rawn on theSouth China Sea map.

In February 2013, China officially refused to participate in the arbitration case reasoning that under its 2006 declaration and covered by article 298th concerning the disputes brought by the Philippines and that the case concerns sovereignty, therefore the arbitral tribunal has no jurisdiction over the issue. But in October 2015, the Permanent Court of Arbitration or PCA ruled that it has jurisdiction over the case filed by the Philippine government. A decision on the case was set to come out on 12 July 2016. Let us see what is going to happen.

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