West Philippine Sea? ASEAN Sea? What’s in a Name

By Scott Kirsch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Two US Navy warships, with the hospital ship USS Mercy in foreground, docked at Subic Bay, Philippines, August 2015. Photo credit: Scott Kirsch
Two US Navy warships, with the hospital ship USS Mercy in foreground, docked at Subic Bay, Philippines, August 2015. Photo credit: Scott Kirsch

Even as China’s “creeping assertiveness” in the South China Sea has given way to a more fully realized dredging geopolitics – reflected spectacularly in photographs of new and quite different artificial reefs produced by China and the Philippines near the disputed Spratly Islands – geopolitics in the South China Sea is also increasingly being rendered in maps, from China’s territorial “9-dash line”, since 2012 emblazoned inside its citizens’ passports, to Google’s 10-dash version of China’s 9-dash line, which provoked a crowd-sourced controversy of its own.   In June, 2015, the Philippine government attempted to raise the diplomatic stakes when it submitted to the United Nations Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in The Hague a 1734 Murillo Velarde map of the archipelago, recently purchased at auction at Sotheby’s by Filipino businessman Mel Velarde for an astonishing £170,000, in support of its claim that the contested Scarborough Shoal – then known as Panacot – was historically part of Spanish Philippine territory.  Given that the contents of Murillo Velarde’s hydrographic and chorographic chart were already well known – indeed they were the basis of Philippine cartography until 1898 – it was a stiff price to pay for Mel Velarde, evidently driven by patriotism and genealogy, also reflecting the persistence of the peculiar rhetoric of maps in contemporary geopolitical discourse and practice, maps which appear to provide both evidence of, and an argument for, particular geographical claims.

While the Velarde map may or may not prove persuasive in The Hague, the controversy underscores the re-emergence of geopolitics, with its pervasive cartographic imaginations, in recent efforts among six Southeast Asian states which are currently staking overlapping claims to territorial waters and exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea.   Efforts to inscribe or re-inscribe maritime spaces in the South China Sea with boundaries, markers, and names, alongside the production of new reefs, islands, and other back-filled spaces, have occurred in the context of China’s dramatic recent industrial growth, which has also been reflected in expanded resource markets and heightened Chinese naval presence and activity in what is, for China, simply the South Sea.

In 2011 the Philippine government – in a moment of nationalist unity shared among the legislative, executive, and armed forces – made it official that the South China Sea was to be known henceforth as the West Philippine Sea.  Interestingly, for Walden Bello, the Filipino legislator and public intellectual who drafted the resolution calling for the official change, the exercise in naming, “wasn’t meant to connote a specific territorial boundary.  We wanted it just to reflect that this wasn’t China’s sea.  We are by no means fixed with regards to our attitude to the name.  … We are even open to calling it the Southeast Asia Sea or ASEAN Sea or what have you.  Our proposal” as Bello would describe it in December 2011 interview, “was at most a symbolic and politico-psychological move.”  But if, for Bello, the choice for the Philippines was between “pursuing multilateral solutions, within the ASEAN framework and under the auspices of the UNCLOS … and creating a bipolar Sino-American face-off by bringing America into the picture,” then, since 2012, when the US and Philippines agreed to an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the trend has been clearly toward an increasing bilateral militarization, drawing the US Navy back to Subic Bay, the former home base of the Seventh Fleet, at a frequency not seen since the base closure in 1992.

In my forthcoming article “Insular territories: US colonial science, geopolitics, and the (re)mapping of the Philippines,” I explore interconnections among processes of mapping, knowing, and naming during an earlier moment of geopolitical transition in Asia and the Western Pacific, focusing on the establishment of a US colonial or “Insular” empire in the Philippines following the 1898 Spanish-American War.  At that time, as US scientists, cartographers, and imperialists – sometimes all in the same person – worked to link the production of knowledge to transformations of place, region, archipelago, and nation, the category of the Insular served as a physical geographic stand-in for describing, in more accurate, political terms, a colonial state and formal empire, thus eliding, at least at the level of official culture, uncomfortable contradictions between empire and democracy, liberator and subjugator.  This is not to make the argument today that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” except to emphasize that the complex relations among mapping, naming and territorial change are always tied in complex ways to evolving geographical contexts.  At the risk of importing a polar metaphor to the tropics, what’s in a name, in contemporary South Sea geopolitics, appears to be just the tip of the iceberg.

About the author: Scott Kirsch is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Geography Department at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Scott is a cultural, historical and political geographer, his research interests include social and political implications of technology; 19th & 20th century US science; history of scientific exploration and cartography; nuclear landscapes; US geopolitics, especially in Philippines and Asia/Pacific; and geographies of war and peace. 


60-world2 Dodds, K.  2015.  Dredging geopolitics: Moving dirt, silt and sand.   Posted April 17, 2015.

60-world2 The Guardian.  2015.  Philippines reinforces its claim to South China Sea outpost.  Posted July 14, 2015.

60-world2 Heydarian, J.  2011.  The West Philippine Sea?  The Diplomat speaks with Walden Bello about China, the U.S. role in Asia and renaming the South China Sea.  Posted December 15, 2011.

books_icon Kirsch, S.  2014.  Insular territories: US colonial science, geopolitics, and the (re)mapping of the Philippines. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12072

60-world2 Ramzy, A.  2015.  Google maps changes name on disputed South China Sea shoal.   Posted July 15, 2015.

60-world2 Tordesillas, E.T.  2015.  PH to submit 300-year-old map to UN in case vs China.  Posted June 7, 2015.



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