Supreme Court (SC) Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio is reputed as the leading Philippine expert on territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). Through ancient charts and old maps, Carpio debunked Beijing’s claim of ownership over almost all the important maritime highway.
Carpio has written a book on the subject, and he has delivered numerous public lectures on the issue, many of which were supposedly done during official time.
Just recently, Carpio scored President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to allow Chinese fishermen to operate in the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the WPS. Carpio argues that allowing Chinese fishermen to operate in the EEZ is illegal because the Constitution reserves the right to use and enjoy Philippine maritime resources to Filipinos.
A maritime nation’s EEZ is recognized by countries that signed the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines and China are signatories to the UNCLOS.
President Rodrigo Duterte disagrees with Carpio. Duterte sees nothing wrong with Manila permitting foreign fishermen in its EEZ, which is a promise he made to Beijing more than a year ago. The president is not too keen on going to war with China.
In his latest tirade against President Duterte, Justice Carpio insisted that the president has the legal obligation to protect the territorial integrity of the country.
While there is truth in that statement, political observers believe that Justice Carpio has been unduly criticizing President Duterte while ignoring the abject failure of ex-President Benigno Aquino III to defend the Philippine claim to North Borneo, which Malaysia calls Sabah, and the unwillingness of the SC to help in the matter.
North Borneo belongs to the Philippines by historic right and legal title. It belongs to the Sultanate of Sulu, which is part of Philippine territory under both the Spanish and American colonial authorities. The territory was eventually leased by a British corporation for several years.
After World War II, when the United Kingdom (UK) granted independence to the Federation of Malaya (the predecessor of Malaysia), the British illegally gave away North Borneo to its former colony.
On two occasions, the United States formally informed the UK that North Borneo is not theirs to give away to Malaysia. Those two advisories were ignored by the British.
Until recently, Malaysia pays an annual rent to the Sultanate of Sulu for its lease on North Borneo.
In 1967, President Ferdinand Marcos organized a commando attempt to recover North Borneo from Malaysia. The plan was mismanaged and an exposé by then Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. doomed the recovery plan.
Since then, the Philippine government has been avoiding public debate on the North Borneo claim. Pleas for help from the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu are repeatedly ignored by the State.
Decades later in 2013, exasperated relatives and allies of the Sultanate of Sulu launched a commando offensive in North Borneo to get back what is legally theirs to begin with. The offensive failed, and the Filipino commandos were captured and imprisoned by Malaysian authorities.
To add insult to the injury, President Aquino III ordered the arrest and prosecution of the Filipino commandos who managed to evade the Malaysian dragnet and made it back to Mindanao. It was an obvious example of a Filipino president punishing his own people who only wanted to recover what lawfully and historically bel onged to them.
That same year, local rights advocate Louis “Barok” Biraogo filed a petition for mandamus in the SC to compel the Department of Foreign Affairs, representing the Republic of the Philippines, to press, once and for all, Manila’s formal claim to North Borneo before the United Nations. That petition was summarily dismissed by the SC en banc in a resolution written by then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Like his fellow justices, Carpio is a member of the SC en banc.
Today, the SC is actually entertaining a petition to compel the national government to protect the rights of Filipino fishermen in the WPS. While Carpio and his SC have shown keen interest in the WPS controversy, they have not demonstrated the same zeal in Manila’s claim to North Borneo.
Perhaps Carpio’s real agenda is not so much about the WPS, but more about embarrassing President Duterte.