Of late, there are two festering territorial issues that have ‘hogtied’ the media and people’s imagination. The more known one is the Philippine’s assertion of ownership over a group of coral-islands somewhere in South China Sea. The other and most recent territorial controversy is the Philippine Sabah Claim based on the proprietary rights over it by the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.


The first landmark considered when it comes to territory is the ‘accepted limits’ established by the colonial masters. These landmarks are arbitrary and have NO consideration of the rights of the weak, since power defines ownership, control and supervision. They draw the lines and they determine ownership and control.


The first delineation of the territory of the Archipelago of the Philippines is the “Treaty of Paris” limits established when Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States of America in 1898. Sad to say the so-called Treaty limits do NOT include the islands now called Kalayaan Islands Group and Sabah.


The second possible delineation of territorial limits is based on the new law of the sea established by UNCLOS. This new delineation includes not only the 12 miles of territorial sea from the shoreline but also the 200 miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The first 12 miles contiguous to the territorial waters is designated as ‘Contiguous Zone’. This is the basis of the new claim of 24 miles from the shorelines within the ‘control’ and ‘supervision’ of the Republic.


The third way of delineation of territory is through legislation. The drawback of delineation by legislation is the fact that it is also unilateral. It is only enforceable either by the force of law within the state and through treaties when disputes involve inter-states or simply by a show of ‘brute’ force. Colonial powers, superpowers and empires continue to do so regardless of rights and historical considerations.


The first attempts at legislation and decrees were the examples of RA 3046 as amended by RA 5446 establishing the Republic’s baselines beyond the limits imposed by the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The first attempts did NOT include the group of islands now called as Kalayaan Islands group and North Borneo or Sabah.


During the long years of President Marcos, two Presidential Decrees (PD) set new territorial delineations. PD 1599 sets the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Republic towards the South China Sea and PD 1596 that expressly included the Kalayaan islands. This was followed in 2009, when RA 9522 sets the Archipelagic Baselines of the Philippines that includes the regime of islands aka Kalayaan.


Obviously China does NOT recognize the domestic legislations. It does not recognize the two PDs nor does it accept RA 9522 in settling disputes over waters and islands between states. Similarly, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan also do not recognize the territorial limits established by PHL domestic laws to establish ‘sovereignty’ over disputed islands and waters.


The Sabah claim is something different. There is NO dispute that prior to the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo was recognized as the legitimate sovereign of the said territory. The Sultan acquired the ownership through GRANT by the Sultan of Brunei in recognition of the Sulu warriors for saving the Sultanate during an uprising.


In 1878, a certain Baron Von Overbeck, an Austrian partner representing The British North Borneo Co. and his partner British Alfred Dent, leased the territory known as "Sabah”. In return the company provided the much the arms and other logistics to the Sultan to resist the Spaniards and 5,000 Malaysian ringgits annual rental based on the Mexican dollars value at that time or its equivalent in gold.


Then in 1939 the judgment of Chief Justice C.F.C. Makaskie of the High Court of North Borneo in the civil suit filed by the late Dayang Dayang Hadji Piandao and eight other heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, including the famous Putlih (Princess) Tarhata Kiram, upheld the validity of the claim of the heirs. ‘Sabah belongs to the Sultanate and NOT to Britain’.


The Royal House ‘ceded’ their rights to the Philippine Government believing that with the impending establishment of the Federation of Malaysia, the Philippine government could flex more muscles in the assertion of the rights over Sabah based on a clearly and legally defined and well documented claim. In fact, the creation of the Federation and inclusion of both Sabah and Sarawak incurred the ire of Indonesia and the Philippines. This was a major item in the formation of Maphilindo, specifically on the peaceful settlement of the tri-border controversies between and among the member states of Maphilindo.


It is true that there are so many claimants to the Sultanate of Sulu… This remains the daunting challenge for the Royal House as well as for the Republic. But what is clear, the Sabah claims cannot easily be dismissed for some parochial concerns or ignorance of the complex issue.


Blog JunMerFollow Fr. Eliseo Mercado on Twitter @junmeromi.