In 1938, President Manuel Quezon directed Executive Secretary Jorge Vargas to review the status of Scarborough Shoal. He wanted to patrol the 15,000-hectare shallow waters surrounded by rock and reef. Only 123 miles off Zambales, the lagoon was deemed crucial for sea and air navigation. Quezon knew the maritime jurisdictional history:
- Originally called Panacot then Bajo de Masinloc, the shoal was ancient Filipino fishing ground. European and Japanese mariners charted it near Luzon. Spanish friar-cartographer Murillo Velarde mapped it in 1734 as “Punto de Mandato,” part of territory.
- The British named it Scarborough after a trading ship that ran aground in 1748. Spain’s Malaspina Expedition of 1792 pinpointed the exact location. In 1800, Admiral Alava dispatched from Cavite Captain Francisco Riquelme’s steamer Santa Lucia for further exploration
- The Dorroteo del Archipielago Filipino, the Spanish pilot guide for mariners, detailed the findings. Entries were added to the Dorroteo in 1866 by British Commander Edward Wilds of the HMS Swallow.
- A storm wrecked the Swedish S.S. Nippon in 1913. Filipino and American vessels came to the rescue. Philippine colonial law governed the salvaging. The Bureau of Navigation recorded the events. The Bureau of Science researched the sea water’s effect on the copra cargo. Insurance litigation reached the Philippine Supreme Court in 1916
- The 1918 Census of the Philippine Islands included Scarborough. On Dec. 6, 1937, Wayne Coy of the U.S. High Commission on the Philippines inquired with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey if any other country claimed the shoal. Replying in the negative four days later, CGS Capt. Thomas Maher suggested a re-survey plus erection of a lighthouse
Vargas’ subsequent letter to Coy set off a series of official correspondence among Washington bigwigs. More so since Vargas stated that “The Commonwealth Government may desire to claim title thereto should there be no objection on the part of the United States Government.” (International maritime lawyer Jay Batongbacal, PhD, dug into the archives a decade ago.)
Coy relayed the letter to the Dept. of War, which forwarded it to the Dept. of State.
On July 27, 1938, Sec. of State Cordell Hull told Sec. of War Harry Woodring that Scarborough had no other claimant. Further, “While the shoal appears outside the limits of the Philippine archipelago as described in Article III of the American-Spanish Treaty of Paris of Dec. 10, 1898, it would seem that, in the absence of a valid claim by any other government, the shoal should be regarded as included among the islands ceded to the United States by the American-Spanish treaty of Nov. 7, 1900.”
Hull continued: “In the absence of evidence of a superior claim to Scarborough Shoal by any other government, the Dept. of State would interpose no objection to the proposal of the Commonwealth Government to study the possibility of the shoal as an aid to air and ocean navigation, provided that the Dept. of the Navy and the Dept. of Commerce, which are interested in air and ocean navigation in the Far East, are informed and have expressed no objection.”
Acting Sec. of the Navy W.R. Furlong wrote Acting Sec. of War Louis Johnson that his department “has no objection” to the Philippine plan. Same with Sec. of Commerce Paul Frizzell after consulting the Civil Aeronautics Authority.
With all its maps encompassing Scarborough, the Commonwealth oversaw shipwreck rescues, salvaging and legalities.
The Republic starting 1946 did more. In 1961, it sent Lt. Cdr. Antonio Ventura to chart the shoal’s topography and varying depths. In 1963 the local press reported the rescue of the French Arsineo crew. That year too the Philippine Navy shelled a pirate wharf there. Philippine and U.S. joint military exercises used a corner of the shoal for bombing target. In the 1970s Filipino fishery officials, professors and students began cultivating giant clams and fan corals. Scarborough has since been renamed Panatag.
China began claiming the shoal only in 1947. It was steeped in civil war then, yet drew a nine-dash line over the South China Sea. Covered but with no longitudes and latitudes – exposing the claim’s sloppiness – were Scarborough as well as reefs of Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Jarius Bondoc is an award-winning Filipino journalist and author based in Manila. He writes opinion pieces for The Philippine Star and Pilipino Star Ngayon and hosts a radio program on DWIZ 882 every Saturday. Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).
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