PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte is open to lifting the moratorium on oil exploration in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Duterte raised the possibility a week after meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang wherein both parties, in a joint statement, said they “may explore means to cooperate with each other in other possible maritime activities including maritime oil and gas exploration and exploitation.”
“It’s one of the possibilities that will happen or can happen or will happen sa South China Sea. There’s really…it’s an area too big. But I think the players there would really be the Asean members who are also claimants,” Duterte said.
The Philippines is claiming sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, which is 200 nautical miles off its territorial waters based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (Unclos)—an area that Manila calls the “West Philippine Sea.”
The claim covers Panatag or Scarborough Shoal as well as the Kalayaan group of islands, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank.
Manila’s claim was upheld by a United Nations-backed arbitration court in July 2016. Beijing, however, refuses to recognize the ruling.
China is claiming the entire South China Sea based on its nine-dash line theory, overlapping with the claims of at least six other countries, including the Philippines. Taiwan also has a claim that is similar to China’s.
In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), claimants in the South China Sea, aside from the Philippines, are Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.
“Almost all claimants are within the Asean, so probably, the projection is we jointly explore what we can extract…the valuable minerals, aside from ores, that’s what they (China) are looking at,” Duterte said.
Joint exploration however may run afoul of the 1987 Constitution, which provides that the exploration, development, and utilization of natural resources should be under the full control and supervision of the Philippine government.
The charter allows the Philippine government to enter into a co-production, joint venture, or production-sharing agreements, but only with private companies 60 percent owned by Filipino citizens.
In 2005, the Arroyo administration inked a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) deal with China and Vietnam which covered islands located 142,886 square kilometers west of Palawan—all located within the Philippines’ EEZ.
The JMSU lapsed in 2008 and wasn’t renewed amid questions over its legality
Duterte said he would only lift the moratorium if doing so would be for the benefit of the country.
“I will only lift it when I think the higher interest of the Philippines is served,” he said. “I won’t lift it haphazardly,” Duterte added.