Philippine voters went to polls today to vote for local leaders and national legislators .
According to the Philippine media, police and the military have been placed on heightened alert for expected poll-related violence .
Polls opened at 7 a.m. and there are 52 million registered voters.
There are 18,000 positions up for grabs, from town ,city mayors, governors and members of Congress.
Political dynasties still mar elections with violence and poll-related fraud..
Taiwan has condemned the fatal shooting by Philippine military of a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman in South China Sea.
According to Taiwan news Taipei Foreign Minister David Lin blamed the Philippine coast guard for opening fire on the fisherman's boat, the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28, on Thursday.
Taiwan has asked the Philippines for a probe into the matter.
The Philippine coastguard admitted on Friday that its personnel shot at the boat.
The Philippine coast guard also said it would hold a news conference to discuss the Taiwanese fisherman's death.
The Philippine election regulator faced opposition and protest for banning the sale of liquor and limiting the withdrawal and transport of money to $2,450 this week until the national elections Monday.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the Commission on Elections (Comelec) not to implement a longer ban on the sale of liquor from Thursday to Monday. In its restraining order, the court allowed the poll body to implement the ban only from Sunday to Monday. An association of liquor vendors complained that they will lose business from the prohibition and sought the court order.
The liquor ban, previously good only for two days, is meant to prevent or reduce the incidence of violence during the election period.
Meanwhile, President Benigno Aquino III, the central bank and banks opposed the Comelec's ban on the withdrawal and transport of cash exceeding $2,450 from Thursday to Monday. The regulation is aimed at preventing vote-buying.
Aquino told reporters at an election campaign rally Thursday that he has relayed to Comelec his disagreement with the ban directed at banks because it will affect businesses and the economy. The Comelec's reaction was to increase the withdrawal limit to $12,254 and exempt routine withdrawals of higher amounts.
When the Comelec issued the money ban Wednesday, the central bank said it cannot comply with the order because checking bank accounts to see if such amount was withdrawn violates deposit secrecy laws.
The association of banks also asked the Supreme Court for a restraining order against the withdrawal limit on grounds that it will injure businesses, it is unconstitutional, it will expose banks to suits from depositors or the Comelec and that they only recognize the central bank as their regulator.
The Comelec warned banks defying the regulation that they will face charges of violating the election law. The poll regulatory body has ordered the police to enforce the cash possession limit at checkpoints.
Vote-buying is a rampant practice during election day and campaign period in the Philippines. Poor voters usually sell their votes to earn money while election candidates pay voters to vote for them as a strategy to win.
One of the Philippines' most active volcano erupted killing five climbers and injuring scores of others.
Mayon volcano began spewing out huge rocks and ash Tuesday morning.
Mayon Volcano is known for its almost-perfect cone.
The very active volcano has erupted more than 40 times during the last 400 years.
It last erupted in 2010, when thousands of residents moved to temporary shelters when the volcano ejected ash across a five-mile zone surrounding the crater.
The United Nations is conducting a tsunami warning exercise for more than 30 Pacific Rim countries.
According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is coordinating the two-week long warning exercise through its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), around 75 per cent of the world's tsunamis occur in the Pacific Ocean and connected seas.
The exercise is aimed at improving the ability of these nations to respond to alert and coordinate action in the event of a disaster.
Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga were hit in 2009; Chile in 2010; Japan in 2011; and the Solomon Islands in 2013. In addition, an average of one or two local tsunamis has struck worldwide every year over the past century.
The exercise will run from May 1 to May 14, Exercise Pacific Wave 2013, also known as PacWave13, will simulate a tsunami warning situation requiring Government decision-making regarding three scenarios for possible earthquakes occurring either off the northern coasts of Japan, the Philippines or Chile, which will generate destructive tsunamis, said UNESCO in press release.
Each Pacific country participating in the exercise will select one of these three scenarios with the evaluation of the outcome expected for 31 May.
A Chinese fishing vessel has crashed into some 3,902 meters of coral in one the Philippines' most famous reefs.
The Chinese boat has become stranded boat in Tubbataha marine park, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed coral reef.
According to reports in the Philippine media, some of the coral destroyed by the Chinese vessel was 500 years old when the vessel carrying 12 Chinese fishermen hit the reef last April 8.
Authorities later found hundreds of dead pangolins, an internationally-protected species, hidden inside the vessel.
The Philippine weather bureau said summer temperatures are expected to peak this month, warning people from heat strokes.
The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA)'s climatological data, the hottest temperatures in the country were recorded in May.
These included the 42.2 degrees Celsius registered in Tuguegarao City on May 11, 1969; 38.5 degrees Celsius at the Science Garden, Quezon City on May 14, 1987; 38.5 degrees Celsius in Sangley Point, Cavite on May 16, 1987; 38.1 degrees Celsius at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Paranaque City on May 18, 1969; and 38.6 degrees Celsius in Port Area, Manila on May 17, 1915, according to Philippines news/
The maximum temperature recorded in Metro Manila was 36.4 degrees Celsius, slightly lower than the record-high 36.6 degrees Celsius registered in the metropolis so far this year
PAGASA said rainy season is expected during the latter part of May or early part of June.
Health authorities in the Philippines were vigilant in keeping out infant formula donations when Typhoon Bopha hit last December, but activists are concerned the infant formula industry will succeed in pushing through legislative changes that will allow formula donations in future emergencies, making it harder to convince women in those crises to continue exclusive breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding - especially during emergencies - has been medically linked to improved child survival due to the incomparable nutrients and antibodies human breast milk offers. But emergencies are also the hardest time to convince women that breast milk can keep their children alive, due to myths about stressed or malnourished women not being able to breastfeed.
When Typhoon Washi (locally known as Sendong) hit the southern Philippines's Mindanao Island in December 2011, breast-milk substitutes, including formula, turned up in evacuation centres even though they are banned under the country's "Milk Code". The Department of Health singled out infant formula maker Nestlé Philippines, issuing a cease-and-desist order requesting it to stop donating milk products to typhoon survivors. The problem was not the company, insisted Nestlé spokeswoman Meike Scmidt, but rather "kind-hearted private individuals and organizations" who donated products of their own will.
"We have the industry's toughest system in place to enforce our policies governing the marketing of breast-milk substitutes," she told IRIN. "Our monitoring procedures include control measures that prevent donations of breast-milk substitutes during emergencies, and those control measures are routinely audited."
Yet the company is now part of a formula interest group called the Paediatric Nutrition Association of the Philippines (IPNAP) which is trying to change the country's Milk Code. One of the proposals is to allow unrestricted donations of breast-milk substitutes during crises. Activists have rallied to fight what they characterize as the "diluting" and weakening of the current Milk Code, allegations that Nestlé dismisses.
Milk of life
Medical studies have linked formula donations to increased diarrhoea during crises, as was the case during Indonesia's 2006 earthquake in Central Java.
A 2012 UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) study found one-week diarrhoea incidence among those who received milk substitutes after the earthquake was more than twice as high as those who did not (24.5 percent versus 11.5 percent); overall, the rate of diarrhoea among infants aged 12-23 months was five times higher than before the earthquake, which researchers linked to breast-milk substitute donations.
Some 80 percent of the 832 surveyed surviving households had received donated infant formula, 76 percent commercial porridge and 49 percent powdered milk. Pre-earthquake only 32 percent of the infants had ever had breast-milk substitutes, a rate that rose to 43 percent at the time of the survey,
"Uncontrolled distribution of infant formula exacerbates the risk of diarrhoea among infants and young children in emergencies," concluded the study, a message aid agencies are still struggling to publicize.
Doing things differently
Almost one year after Typhoon Washi hit, Typhoon Bopha (local name Pablo) hit Mindanao Island again, this time taking out entire villages in Compostela Valley and Davao Orientale along the island's northern and eastern coasts. Some 2,000 are dead or missing.
Five days after the Category 5 (winds up to 250km) typhoon made landfall on 4 December, the regional health director for Davao Region (heart of affected zone) circulated a memo to all governmental and aid agencies working on health, water and sanitation urging them to enforce and uphold Health Department regulations prohibiting the distribution of milk products to women and children. The memo stated such donations by "well-meaning, but misinformed donors" were unnecessary.
The challenge, said UNICEF nutrition officer for emergencies in the Philippines Paul Zambrano, is reaching aid groups that bypass any donation coordination structure such as local NGOs and faith-based groups. "They go directly into communities. Monitoring at the local level is difficult," he said.
Even with health officials' vigilance to keep out milk products, the disaster took a heavy toll on nutrition in affected areas: Aid groups estimate 95,600 persons will be at risk of malnutrition in 2013 including nearly 67,000 children under the age of five and 29,000 pregnant and lactating women.
The youngest are the most vulnerable. One month after the typhoon hit, of the nearly 500 children under age five surveyed, 66 percent had some illness (most often accompanied by a fever, cough and diarrhoea). Breast-milk substitutes increase the risk of these illnesses due to unsafe water used to mix formula and lack of fuel to sterilize products.
The proposed Milk Code changes are pending review as parliament is on recess until 1 July, and the country prepares to elect new parliamentarians in 13 May elections.
- Provided by Integrated Regional Information Networks.
The Philippine government is stepping up efforts against money launderers especially drug syndicates.
According to Philippine news, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) have agreed to heighten their cooperation against drug syndicates, said PDEA Director General Undersecretary Arturo Cacdac Jr.
Officials said that a chunk of laundered money comes from the production and trafficking of drugs.
The report said that through cooperation the AMLC was able to order the freeze of $50.85 million of "laundered" money by suspected drug personalities.
The Philippines hopes to avoid being put on a blacklist of money-laundering havens after President Benigno Aquino signed a new law boosting safeguards against such crimes in February.
Malaysia Navy has killed the 35 Filipinos in the Sulu Sea , not the Philippine Navy as earlier claimed in the Malaysian media.
According to Philippine news, Abraham Idjirani, spokesman for the sultanate, said the 35 were killed by the Malaysian Navy and not by Philippine forces as previously reported.
Idjirani said the information was relayed to him yesterday by Guro Bata II, a commander of the
On Thursday, Star online reported the 35 men were allegedly shot by the Philippine Navy as they tried to cross into Sabah from Sulu.
The Star quoted Malaysian Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying that the armed men were shot by Philippine Navy and Coast Guard personnel before they could enter Malaysian waters.
However. Philippine Navy, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Sultanate of Sulu in Tawi-Tawi issued separate statements denying the report.
As the storm season approaches, officials in the Philippines are turning to seasoned storm emergency responders to help prepare communities that have historically been spared devastation but that now find themselves in harm's way.
When Typhoon Bopha struck the southern Philippine island of Mindanao last December, it unleashed an unprecedented scale of devastation on the island's northern and eastern coasts, particularly in farming regions once thought to be safe from such deadly weather events.
Whipping up winds of up to 250km an hour, the typhoon - known locally as Pablo - was the strongest to have hit the southern region in nearly a century, and it was the deadliest storm in the world that year.
One of the first responders was a disaster relief team deployed from the eastern Albay Province, a region once among the country's most disaster-prone.
Cedric Daep, who heads the Office of Civil Defence in Albay, sent 72 members to respond to the humanitarian needs of tens of thousands of people displaced by typhoon-triggered landslides and floods.
"It caught practically all local government units and disaster response groups by surprise," Daep told IRIN. "They had no experience in such things, and were slow to react in the onset of sudden emergency."
The typhoon affected over six million people, directly displacing about one million. More than 2,000 were either confirmed dead or are still reported missing. The storm also destroyed some 230,000 homes, as well as roads, telecommunications, bridges and community health centres, effectively cutting off many remote communities.
Bringing in experts
Daep said the national government realized at the onset it had to fly in outside experts, preferably those from communities with a long history of tackling such disasters.
"By force of necessity, we became experts at disaster management, so we were sent to help out," Daep said.
"When we arrived, we immediately set up technical support, as well prioritized bringing in supplies, food and water. Camp management was also strengthened - there was total chaos. None of the local officials were functioning; they were shell-shocked."
Over the past two decades, Albay, in the eastern Bicol region, was the gateway for powerful typhoons blowing from the Pacific. It has seen some of the country's most violent storms, as well as periodic eruptions of Mayon Volcano.
Years of disasters honed residents' survival skills, and the province is considered a leader in instituting early warning systems, as well as preventive evacuations.
It is listed by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction as one of 29 "role model cities" that exemplify disaster risk reduction (DRR).
However, over the past two years, Bicol has been relatively unscathed. Changing weather patterns have caused the most recent typhoons to move south, hitting Mindanao or the capital, Manila.
Adapting to weather changes
Loren Legarda, chair of the senate's environment and climate change committee, said part of the government's climate change adaptation strategy is learning to divert resources to help less disaster-experienced communities.
"We have to take action now [rather] than wait until it's too late," Legarda told IRIN. "Our disaster risk reduction mechanism should be pro-active, [to] ensure communities are disaster-proof by making them more resilient."
"The times have changed, so have the weather patterns," she said.
Legarda said other communities must also learn from Daep's expertise and strive to follow the models used in Albay.
"Communities that have yet to put up their own plans must begin making up short-term DRR programmes, expected by the time the storm season begins in June, as well as a long-term programme that will make them resilient," she said.
In the aftermath of Typhoon Bopha, the government has intensified its disaster awareness campaign by distributing geo-hazard maps in newly devastated areas, as well as conducting rapid emergency management trainings and briefings for local officials.
- Provided by Integrated Regional Information Networks.
The Philippine Supreme Court stopped the implementation of the Reproductive Health Law for 120 days.
Six petitions were filed with the high court by James Imbong, et al., Expedito Bugarin, Eduardo Olaguer and the Catholic Xybrspace Apostolate of the Philippines, Serve Life Cagayan De Oro City, et al., Task Force for Family and Life Visayas, Inc. and Valeriano Avila, and Alliance for the Family Foundation Philippines, Inc.
The petitioners stated that the Republic Act 10354 or the Act Providing for a National Policy on Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health "mocks the nation's Filipino culture—noble and lofty in its values and holdings on life, motherhood and family life—now the fragile lifeblood of a treasured cultured that today stands solitary but proud in contrast to other nation.
They also said the new law violates the Constitution which upholds the ideal of an unconditional respect for life and aspires for the establishment of policies that create opportunities to harness the economic potential of every Filipino.
The Philippines has shrugged off decades of financial woes to earn its first investment-grade credit rating from one of the world's leading ratings agencies. Economists say it was only a matter of time before the Philippines would be given an investment-grade rating
The Philippine government wants peaceful resolution of the Sabah standoff, offers assistance to Malaysia to put a closure on the conflict
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has recently signed into law to pay victims of the country's former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. An amount of $22 million has been set aside to compensate victims of abuses during Marcos regime
An interview with a commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the Philippines. The MNLF is a nationalist political organization that has been waging an armed struggle against the Philippine state since 1969
With its soft-power overtures, China has tried to expand its influence without disquieting its neighbors and trade partners. But through its hard-power posturing, China has achieved the exact opposite
The recent 2012 Corruption Perception Index showed that 70 percent of the world is seen as more corrupt than good. The Philippines didn't fare well by scoring 34 in the CPI report
The Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting concluded with failing to make strong commitments on overfishing
There are over one million undocumented Filipino migrants around the world, according to the 2011 Stock Estimate of Filipinos Overseas, the Commission on Filipino Overseas reported
Philippines officials claim to have recovered an American reconnaissance drone in the waters off Masbate island in the central Philippines
Amid nationwide calls for stricter gun controls, Filipino police killed 13 reported criminal gang members in a violent shootout -- a third such incident in recent weeks
The Philippine government has launched a mobile phone application which can provide real-time information on rainfall and flooding to the general public
As overstretched authorities in Manila grappled with rains that triggered fatal flooding, a separate man-made disaster erupted in the country's troubled south
The conflict in the South China Sea may be long running, but there are several reasons why it has become much more dangerous. There can be little doubt that President Obama in his second term will find the South China Sea one of the hottest issues in East Asia
In order to help survivors of deadly typhoon Bopha, which killed more than 600 people and displaced millions in southern Philippines, the United Nations launched a $65 million global appeal
Several nations have pledged assistance to typhoon-ravaged Philippines. United States Ambassador to the Philippines stated that U.S. will be giving an additional $3 million in assistance
Control over the South China Sea is more than just a practical matter and goes to the center of China's foreign policy dilemma: how to assert its maritime claims while maintaining a non-confrontational foreign policy
Both countries are determined to keep the Scarborough Shoals within their territorial waters. But if China deployed force to stake its claim, the Philippines' armed forces would, in their current state, offer little resistance
As part of its efforts to boost its presence within Southeast Asia, the United States has decided to reaffirm its military support for the Philippines. Yet this will not come at the price of heightening tensions with China
President Benigno Aquino brushed off media reports that Manila had sought U.S. assistance in monitoring the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea
China's growing regional presence – not to mention its territorial claims – is prompting many Southeast Asian states to reinvigorate their ties with the United States
The highly publicized dispute between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal has become yet another reminder of the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea
The pain brought by Manny Pacquiao's loss has been eased with the victory of Filipino-American coach Erik Spoelstra's Miami Heat in the NBA Finals
China's increasing maritime assertiveness is bringing Manila and Washington closer
Southeast Asian militant groups will continue to be relegated to grassroots tactics
A political standoff looms in the Philippines as its executive and judiciary appears headed for a showdown over the departure of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to seek medical treatment overseas
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed U.S. support to the Philippines' territorial claims on the Spratlys and said that no country has the right to intimidate Manila to assert sovereignty over the disputed island chain in the South China Sea
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ruled out on Thursday an all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) despite the massacre of 19 soldiers in Basilan
The government of the Philippines is fighting a losing battle with residents living in flood-prone areas as they refuse to relocate
The number of fatalities from Typhoon Nesat that battered the Philippines has risen to 20
Two Filipinos are in critical condition following an apparent lovers' shooting incident. It was the second such incident to hit the largest mall operator in the Philippines within one week
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III left for the U.S. to join the launching of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in New York City. The OGP is a global effort to make governments efficient and responsive to citizens by fighting corruption and promoting transparency
Former Armed Forces of the Philippines comptroller Gen. Carlos Garcia made Philippines history twice recently. He is the first two-star general to be sent to the national penitentiary. However, he is serving merely two years although he stole $7 million (PHP 303 million) from military coffers
A Philippine passenger and cargo vessel, MV Asia Malaysia, sank Sunday morning off the coast of Iloilo, a province in the southern Philippines which is part of the Visayas area. All of its nearly 200 passengers and crew were safely rescued
A retired Navy colonel called for the overthrow of President Benigno Aquino III in a video circulated on social networking sites. But drawing no support from the military, the presidential palace merely shrugged off the incident.
The Aquino government said its newest and biggest warship, a 1967-built U.S. Coast Guard cutter, will be delivered to Manila to add muscle to its most powerful navy vessel, a 1943-built destroyer-escort also from the U.S.
China is making the ridiculous assertion that it controls virtually all of the seas from Korea all the way down to Malaysia and Brunei
Migrant workers are the slaves of the modern world
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the Philippines won't go to war with China over the ongoing territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea
Philippine authorities are scrambling to map out previously unknown fault lines across the archipelago after a powerful 6.9 magnitude quake flattened villages, twisted roads and killed dozens
Asia has one of the largest concentrations globally of aging persons, creating a host of potential challenges
The Philippine Air Force's two aging warplanes dropped bombs in positions of Muslim bandits in the southern province of Zamboanga Sibugay in a bid to flush them out after they killed 35 people, including 18 marines
A Philippine government panel tasked with the investigation of fraud in the 2007 elections summoned former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to shed light on her alleged involvement in cheating to make administration candidates win
A member of the New Zealand parliament called for the Filipino captain of the container ship that has been leaking oil since striking a reef to be hanged for the environmental disaster he caused in the Bay of Plenty
The Philippine Supreme Court, in an unprecedented move, announced that it reversed a decision of its second division that favored Philippine Airlines cabin crew who were dismissed by the company in 1998
Recent months have witnessed renewed tensions over disputed territories in the South China Sea. In response to China's encroaching military maneuvers and the country's designation of the whole area as part of its indisputable sovereignty, several South East Asian countries have found themselves dangerously vulnerable
The Philippine Department of Public Works and Highways announced plans to build elevated expressways on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue
Two more charges of plunder and graft were filed against former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband. Two other Arroyo officials allegedly involved in the botched $329-million national broadband deal also were charged
Fares will soon have to increase for the Metro Railway Transit and Light Railway that services the national capital region, President Benigno Aquino III said
The Philippine Department of Justice recommended filing charges against former Armed Forces of the Philippines comptroller Lt. Gen. Jacinto Ligot and his wife, Erlinda, for tax evasion
New evidence uncovered in the reinvestigation of the Vizconde Massacre is not sufficient to bring back to jail the son of a former Filipino senator and six others previously convicted by a regional trial court for rape and murder
Some 4,500 American troops and 2,300 Filipino troops will conduct war games in the Philippines as part of an annual drill while Manila is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China
Residents and businessmen in Mindanao have threatened to file a $116 million lawsuit against the government to get compensation for damages caused by continuing power outages
A concessionaire of the Philippines' version of the Las Vegas Strip has completed construction of its hotel in portion of the 300-acre gaming site
The Philippine government has made geo-hazard maps, which outline areas prone to natural disasters, publicly available in a bid to reduce vulnerability at community level
Weeks after tropical storm Washi caused severe flooding on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, leaving over 1,200 dead and thousands homeless, thousands more people have been evacuated from their homes following fresh flooding
The South China Sea issue and China's position on it have become subjects of much deliberation, especially since the ASEAN Regional Forum Meeting at Hanoi last July. It is generally believed that the South China Sea will emerge as the hot-spot of conflict in the coming years. Here's why
Plans by a Philippine province to erect a large sign on an active volcano drew criticism from various groups on Thursday. Batangas Province officials want to imitate the landmark Hollywood sign on Taal Volcano
Damage caused by the two typhoons that battered the Philippines was estimated at $228 million (PHP 10 billion) by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC)
Rescuers are struggling to reach communities in northern provinces of the main Philippine island of Luzon, which were hit by two powerful typhoons
Credit Suisse downgraded the growth forecast for the Philippine economy for the rest of 2011 to 4.3 percent from 4.6 percent
The Philippine government's panel of negotiators proposed to secessionist rebels wider autonomy for Muslims in the south at the start of their peace talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The presidential palace confirmed that Muslim rebel leaders proposed to President Benigno Aquino III the creation of a Muslim substate in the Philippines during their unannounced meeting in Tokyo, Japan
On the order of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, the Bureau of Immigration placed on its watchlist former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
A US $34 million Humanitarian Action Plan (HAP) aimed at assisting more than 400,000 conflict displaced people return to their homes on the Philippine island of Mindanao, remains underfunded, says the UN
The Manila International Airport Authority, which operates the Philippines' international gateway, is looking for body scanners to enhance the airport's security systems
Armed with machetes and cutting equipment, and in a bid to prevent flooding in and around the Philippine city of Cotabato on Mindanao island, hundreds of troops and civilians cleared tons of water lilies from the Rio Grande river
As yet another tropical storm has been battering parts of the Philippine island of Luzon over the past few days, leaving thousands displaced, the government has set up a Technical Working Group (TWG) with the aim of improving preparedness for natural disasters and manmade calamities, including conflict.
The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines reassured Manila of Washington's support on issues of the former with China relative to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea