âJoint exploration in South China Sea not government policyâ

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella downplayed President Duterte’s statement that he may allow a sharing of resources in the disputed waters, which came in the wake of an unannounced visit of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to Malacañang also the other day. Presidential Photographers Division/Ace Morandante

‘Joint exploration in South China Sea not government policy’

(The Philippine Star) - December 21, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella reiterated yesterday that there is no policy yet that provides for joint oil exploration with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Abella downplayed President Duterte’s statement that he may allow a sharing of resources in the disputed waters, which came in the wake of an unannounced visit of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to Malacañang also the other day.

“I believe these are not government-to-government agreements, but it may be business-to-business agreements,” Abella said in a briefing yesterday, adding that it could not be considered official if it is a private sector initiative.

Pressed for an explanation, he said there is no clear government policy at this time regarding possible joint oil exploration with China.

“I’m just saying that… there is no government policy regarding the matter, covering that matter at this stage. But I suppose what he’s saying, what he was referring to, is the possibility of business-to-business partnerships,” he added.

At the same time, Abella echoed the Palace’s statement that the Philippine government will adhere to the ruling of the arbitration tribunal “because these are our properties, technically our properties.”

In a speech in Malacañang, Duterte said he can look at having joint oil exploration with Beijing to further settle the differences between the two countries over control of the South China Sea.

Duterte admitted that the Philippine military does not have enough power to flex its muscles in the disputed seas – compared to the might that Beijing has – and cannot allow the Marines to be wiped out.

He committed though that he would not abandon the Philippines’ rights over the area, which has been stipulated in the arbitration ruling.

China offers help

China has offered the Department of National Defense (DND) $14.4 million worth of military equipment, according to DND Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

He said Zhao has given a list of defense equipment for the Philippines to choose from –including small arms, fast boats and night vision goggles all amounting to RMB100 million or P720 million.

A technical working group will be going to China to take a look at the equipment. If a deal is reached and finalized, these could be delivered by the first or second quarter of 2017.

Aside from the grant, the Chinese ambassador also expressed his country’s willingness to sell big-ticket items to the Philippines in the form of a $500-million soft loan.

“China wants to give us $500 million worth of long-term soft loan. If we want more equipment we can always avail of that soft loan,” Lorenzana said.

He gave assurance that China’s only intention in offering the grant and soft loan is to help the Philippines in its fight against terror and illegal drugs.

“They wanted to help the President. They told the President that they know the extent of the terrorism problem in the country as well as illegal drugs and they’re willing to help us,” Lorenzana said, noting that Beijing would also be putting up a drug rehabilitation center in Mindanao.

Duterte hurled fresh tirades at Washington in the presence of new US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim on Monday and insisted that the country can live without aid from the superpower.

During the Negosyo para sa Kapayapaan sa Sulu townhall meeting in Malacañang Monday night, he lambasted the US anew for allegedly using its aid to interfere with Philippine affairs and threatening to cut its assistance to the Philippines because of human rights violations under his watch.

The event was attended by top businessmen, entrepreneurs, politicians, former and incumbent cabinet officials and diplomats, including Kim.  

“You the United States were here, they lord it over for 50 years and live with the fat of the land. But when they went out, it’s still, it was still a unitary type. And to hear them say, ‘we will cut your aid if these things happen again.’ Go on, shut up, shut up,” the President said.

He went on to criticize the US-led Millennium Challenge Corp., which deferred a $433-million assistance to the Philippines over “concerns around rule of law and civil liberties.”

“I do not need your assistance, challenge – Millennium Challenge, 400 million? China is going to release to me 50 billion, go home, I do not need your aid,” the President said, stressing that he is standing up for dignity when he made his statements against the US, pointing out that the Philippines would not go hungry without it.

Kim did not react while Duterte was delivering the statements, but the envoy displayed a faint smile when the President recognized him.

“If you are dealing with Asians, with due respect to the Ambassador of United States, be careful of your language. You could not do that to the Japanese and to the Koreans and to the…They feel insulted,” Duterte said, giving a bit of advice to the newly installed ambassador.

The Philippines and the US has had a rocky relationship since Duterte assumed power last June 30. US officials have called Duterte out for the spate of killings tied to his anti-drug war, a move that he viewed as intervention with Manila’s internal affairs.

Duterte is optimistic though that the relationship between Manila and Washington would improve under president-elect Donald Trump, adding that the US could have used proper channels if it has concerns over his campaign against illegal drugs.

Not gospel truth

On Duterte’s plan to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Lorenzana said it should not be taken as “gospel truth” for now.

The President’s statement can be considered simply as a threat, since no formal written order has been issued by Malacanang to invalidate the VFA, an agreement that came into force in May 27, 1999 upon ratification by the Philippine Senate, he said.

“He (Duterte) just said it. He simply said it in a form of a threat,” Lorenzana said, adding that the DND has not received an order from the President to notify the US government about his decision to abrogate the VFA.

The defense chief added that the country would soon be cautioning the US and China on their activities within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

He said the Philippines would want to know what they have been doing in the West Philippine Sea.

“We have rights over the area. Both should ask permission from us,” Lorenzana said in reference to the recent “drone” incident near Subic Bay wherein one of the two US unmanned underwater vehicle (UUVs) was as seized by a Chinese warship.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Ralph Recto urged President Duterte to keep the US as a friend of the country in recognition of the help it has provided in the past.

Recto agreed that the Philippines would be better off pivoting to an independent foreign policy position than siding with any of the big powers.  

But in pushing for this, he argued, there is no reason for the country to be alienating any of its friends.

“Our motto should be: Friend to all, but subservient to none. In other words, amity to all, hostility to no one,” Recto said. 

The lawmaker said foreign policy rebalancing should not mean that “we dump old friends for new suitors.”  

“So what’s the advantage of running away from the claws of the American eagle only to rush to the embrace of a Chinese or Russian bear?” he said.

He insisted that the Philippines maintain friendship with all nations, even those it has “ongoing differences” with.

“We must continuously engage, not disengage. One of the important engagement points is the matter of trade and aid, but preferably more of the former,” Recto said. – Christina Mendez, Jaime Laude, Marvin Sy, Alexis Romero

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