Territories claimed by the Philippines

Territories claimed by the Philippines

The Republic of the Philippines had claimed many lands throughout its history. These include the Spratly Islands, Sabah, Scarborough Shoal, Benham Rise, Palmas or Miangas Island, Orchid Island, Marianas Islands and Caroline Islands.

pratly Islands

Philippines claim 52 features in the Spratly Island Group. Among these, Philippines were only able to occupy 7 islands and 2 reefs. These include Thitu (Pagasa)island (2nd largest), West York (Likas) island (3rd largest), Northeast (Parola) cay (5th largest), Nanshan (Lawak) island, Loaita (Kota) island, Flat (Patag) island, Lankiam (Panata) cay, Commodore (Rizal) reef, Irving (Balagtas) reef and Second Thomas (Ayungin) reef. Other features claimed by the Philippines were either occupied by Vietnam, China, Taiwan or Malaysia or unoccupied by any other countries. Parts of Spratly Islands group that is not claimed by the Philippines are those that are near to Vietnam. The farthest feature that they claim is Ladd Reef which is nearer to and occupied by Vietnam.

Philippines established a municipality named Kalayaan under the province of Palawan for all the features they occupied.

See Spratly Islands for more details.


The status of the territory of Sabah, previously known as North Borneo, is currently disputed between Malaysia and the Philippines. Presently, Sabah is one of the states that formed Malaysia in 1963. Despite that, the Philippines and the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu have made claims to the territory though the claim is currently dormant.

On 23 January 1878, in exchange for modern weapons with which to keep Spanish colonizers away from the Sulu Archipelago, the ruler of Sulu, Sultan Jamalul Alam, leased the territory of North Borneo to Gustavus von Overbeck, an Austrian who was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire's consul-general in Hong Kong. This was accomplished via a trading company belonging to von Overbeck's British partner Alfred Dent, and later via the British North Borneo Company. Von Overbeck procured the necessary firearms and also paid the Muslim dignitary an annual sum equivalent to 5,000 Malaysian dollars (now known as ringgit).

The key word in the agreement was "padjak," which has been translated by American, Dutch and Spanish linguists to mean "lease" or "arrendamiento." The agreement further states explicitly that the rights to the territory may not be transferred to a nation or another company without the sultan's expresses permission.

In 1906 and in 1920, the United States formally reminded Great Britain that North Borneo did not belong to the Crown and was still part of the Sultanate of Sulu. However, the British did turn Sabah into a Crown leased Colony. The Philippine Constitution of 1941 states that the national territory of the Philippines included, among other things, "all other areas which belong to the Philippines on the basis of historical rights or legal claims." Malaysia was federated in 16 September 1963. Even before Sabah was incorporated into Malaysia, the Philippines sent delegations to London reminding the British Crown that Sabah belonged to the Philippines.

Malaysia insists that Sabah is under the sovereignty of Malaysia based on the fact that under agreements that Baron von Over beck and Alfred Dent secured with the Brunei Sultanate on 29 December 1877 and the Sulu Sultanate on 22 January 1878, the sultanate of Sulu agreed to lease Sabah to Malaysia. The British Crown renewed the lease on 15 July 1946, but finally ceded Sabah to Malaysia on 16 September 1963. Malaysia is still believed to be paying the annual rent to the Sultan of Sulu.

Malaysian control was further strengthened by two referendums: the first facilitated by the United Nations-backed Cobbold Commission, from February to April 1962 and the second before the formation of Malaysia in September 1963. Both referendums recorded 70% of Sabahan population voting for Sabah to be part of Malaysia.

carborough Shoal

The Scarborough Shoal or Panatag Shoal or Huangyan Island (黄岩岛), more correctly described as a group of islands, atolls, and reefs then a shoal, is located in the Luzon Sea or South China Sea. The nearest landmass is Palauig town, Zambales province, Luzon Island, with only 221 kilometers. It is about 123 miles west of Subic Bay.

Both the Philippines and the People's Republic of China claim it.

The Philippines base their claim on its proximity, its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and the principle of terra nullius (which can only be valid if no one ever owned it before).

The Chinese basis for claim is that the shoal would have been first discovered by Chinese in the 13th century and historically used by Chinese fishermen.

Many Chinese fishermen were already arrested here by the Philippine Navy for using illegal fishing methods and catching of endangered sea species.

Palmas or Miangas Island

It involved a territorial dispute over the Island of Palmas (or Miangas) between the Netherlands and the United States which was heard by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

This case is one of the most highly influential precedents dealing with island territorial conflicts.

Palmas, also referred to as Miangas, is an island of little economic value or strategic location. It is two miles in length, three-quarters of a mile in width, and has a population of about 750 when the decision of the arbitrator was handed down. The island is located between Mindanao, Philippines and the northern most island, known as Nanusa, of what was the former Netherlands East Indies. In 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States and Palmas sat within the boundaries of that cession to the U.S. In 1906, the United States discovered that the Netherlands also claimed sovereignty over the island and the two parties agreed to submit to binding arbitration to resolve the dispute on January 23, 1925. The arbitrator in the case was Max Huber, a Swiss national.

The question the arbitrator was to resolve was whether the Island of Palmas (Miangas), in its entirety, was a part of the territory of the United States or the Netherlands.

The Arbitrator ruled in favor of the Netherlands’ position and stated that the Netherlands’ held actual title to Palmas:

For these reasons The Arbitrator in conformity with Article I of the Special Agreement of January 23rd, 1925 DECIDES that : THE ISLAND OF PALMAS (or MIANGAS) forms in its entirety a part of the Netherlands territory done at The Hague, this fourth day of April 1928 Max Huber, Arbitrator Michiels van Verduynen, Secretary-General

The first of the United State's two arguments, the United States argued that it held the island because it had received actual title through legitimate treaties from the original "discoverer" of the island, Spain. The United States argued that Spain acquired title to Palmas when Spain discovered the island and the island was terra nullius. Spain's title to the island, because it was a part of the Philippines, was then ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Paris (1898) after Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War. The arbitrator noted that no new international law invalidated the legal transfer of territory via cession.

However, the arbitrator noted that Spain could not legally grant what it did not hold and the Treaty of Paris could not grant to the United States Palmas if Spain had no actual title to it. The arbitrator concluded that Spain held an inchoate title when Spain “discovered” Palmas. However, for a sovereign to maintain its initial title via discovery, the arbitrator said that the discoverer had to actually exercise authority, even if it were a simple an act as planting a flag on the beach. In this case, Spain did not exercise authority over the island after making an initial claim after discovery and so the United States’ claim was based on relatively weak grounds.

The United States also argued that Palmas was United States territory because the island was closer to the Philippines than to Indonesia which was then held by the Netherlands East Indies. The arbitrator said there was no positive international law which favored the United State's approach of terra firma, where the nearest continent or island of considerable size gives title to the land in dispute. The arbitrator held that mere proximity was not an adequate claim to land noted that if the international community followed the proposed United States approach, it would lead to arbitrary results.

The Netherlands’ primary contention was that it held actual title because the Netherlands had exercised authority on the island since 1677. The arbitrator noted that the United States had failed to show documentation proving Spanish sovereignty on the island except those documents that specifically mentioned the island's discovery. Additionally, there was no evidence that Palmas was a part of the judicial or administrative organization of the Spanish government of the Philippines. However, the Netherlands showed that the East India Company had negotiated treaties with the local princes of the island since the 17th century and had exercised sovereignty, including a requirement of Protestantism and the denial of other nationals on the island. The arbitrator pointed out that if Spain had actually exercised authority, than there would have been conflicts between the two countries but none are provided in the evidence.

Under the Palmas decision, three important rules for resolving island territorial disputes were decided:

Firstly, title based on contiguity has no standing in international law. Secondly, title by discovery is only an inchoate title. Finally, if another sovereign begins to exercise continuous and actual sovereignty, (and the arbitrator required that the claim had to be open and public and with good title), and the discoverer does not contest this claim, the claim by the sovereign that exercises authority is greater than a title based on mere discovery.

However, up to this day, several Philippine legislators' claims that the island cannot be part of Indonesia today due to the fact that the ethnic group living in this island is far more related to the Sarangani people of Mindanao than any ethnic group in Indonesia. Their language is also similar.


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