Choosing our battles

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes - The Philippine Star

Is the proposed joint exploration between the Philippines and China of the South China Sea something that we should condemn or something that we should welcome?

Following his recent visit to China, President Duterte said China has offered joint exploration as Beijing has recognized that it co-owns the disputed areas in the South China Sea with the Philippines.

 Those who insist that the disputed waters are ours, following the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea) and that China’s claim of historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’ has no legal basis, and should not be shared with China, would of course criticize the President’s statement and would say that the President cannot give away part of our territory.

It will be recalled that China in 2009 submitted to the UN its claim that covers the entire South China Sea, including parts of the Philippines’ western seaboard from Ilocos Norte up to Palawan, since these areas fall within its nine-dash line delineation of its territory.

The case submitted by the Philippines to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea covers eight maritime features currently under China’s control. These are Mischief Reef, Kennan Reef, Gaven Reef, Subi Reef, Scarborough Shoal, Johnson Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Fiery Cross.

China however has said that it will never accept any decision by the UN arbitral tribunal. It claims that the entire South China Sea through its nine-dash line concept overlaps with the Philippines 200-mile exclusive economic zone recognized under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Tension had been high between the Philippines and China ever since that controversial ruling.

When President Duterte came into office, I would assume that he thought long and hard about how to deal with this explosive issue.

He believes that this is a war that we cannot win. So he decided that we are better off as a country if China is our friend, not our enemy. But of course, he has also said that this does not mean that we are abandoning our claim over the West Philippine Sea.

The arbitral ruling is nothing but a pyrrhic victory, a win that comes with a heavy cost. We cannot enforce it, not only because China does not recognize the decision, but also because we do not have the military might to fight China.

The President was probably just ecstatic that China, instead of exploring South China Sea on its own which it can do given its immense financial and technical resources and given its insistence that it solely owns the disputed waters, is now willing to undertake joint explorations with the Philippines, that he used the word “co-ownership,” something that China may not even be thinking about.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano was quoted as saying that the two sides are  finding a common legal framework to conduct joint exploration and surveys in the contested waters, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that the two countries will in a prudent and steady way advance cooperation on offshore oil and gas exploration.

 Meanwhile, China’s Xinhua News Agency has quoted President Xi as saying after his meeting with President Duterte that the disputed waters should be a sea of cooperation and friendship, and proposed a joint exploration between China and the Philippines at an appropriate time.

There was no mention of co-ownership.

 With our natural gas supply from Malampaya running out in a couple of years and our increasing demand, this joint exploration may be the only solution for the Philippines in its search for new sources of energy.

The West Philippine Sea is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. Unfortunately, we do not  have the financial capability to shoulder the mammoth costs needed for its exploration and development. 

 Experts believe that a joint exploration arrangement between the Philippines and China, so long as these are covered by commercial agreements, is legally acceptable. Our Constitution allows the President to enter into agreements with foreign-owned corporations involving either technical or financial  assistance for large-scale exploration, development, and utilization of minerals, petroleum, and other mineral oils.

 Cayetano has already dispelled concerns on a possible cooperation agreement infringing on the Philippines’ sovereign rights when he earlier gave assurances that the government would consult legal experts to make sure any pact with China would not violate the Constitution or any of our laws.

It might be too early to bash this proposed joint cooperation with China. If the Philippine government enters into exploration contracts with China’s private sector, then that is nothing new. After all, our Malampaya gas field was developed and exploited via a partnership with Shell Philippines Exploration BV, a company that is partly foreign owned.

Malacanang spokesperson Harry Roque has also emphasized that China’s CNOOC has existing joint exploration agreements with Vietnam, which means that the proposed arrangement with the Philippines is not going to be the first. He added that the Vietnam-China treaty on joint exploration and development can be a model which the Philippines and China can follow.

He added that Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have joint exploration agreements covering their respective exclusive economic zones.

Yes, the President may once again have been politically incorrect when he used the term “co-ownership.” But again, China may remind us that it still claims that the South China Sea is theirs to explore and exploit exclusively. If it does, can we prevent China from doing so?

What we should make sure is that any joint exploration agreement should benefit the Philippines in a manner that is consistent with what our laws and the Constitution provide and that such agreement should not in any way be construed as a surrender of part of our national territory.

For comments, e-mail at [email protected]

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