LEADERS of the House minority bloc on Wednesday backed a proposal for joint exploration between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), to allow the country to benefit from the area’s vast oil and gas resources despite a maritime dispute.
House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez of Quezon and Jose “Lito” Atienza of Buhay party-list bared their stance following reports that the Duterte administration would ink a deal with China on joint exploration, particularly for natural gas in Recto or Reed Bank, during the President’s state visit in Beijing this week.
“There’s no problem with a joint venture with China. It is most welcome because that will increase our [financial]capital. This is a joint venture for exploration of oil or gas. If you don’t use those resources … in a few years, you can’t use it anymore,” Suarez told reporters.
Atienza saw no problem even if joint exploration would be held within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
On July 12, a UN-backed arbitration tribunal invalidated China’s claim to most of the South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ rights over its EEZ, which covers the Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands, Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank.
The arbitration court said Filipino fishermen should enjoy fishing rights at Panatag Shoal, and that Chinese reclamation activities in the area were illegal.
Atienza however contended that “an exclusive economic zone does not mean it is yours.”
“It just means you can conduct economic activities there. Working with a foreign counterpart is not necessarily bad or deplorable,” said Atienza, who was secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural resources during the Arroyo administration.
Done by Arroyo
A joint exploration pact between the Philippines, China and Vietnam took effect in 2005, during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) covered islands located 142,886 square kilometers west of Palawan, within the Philippines’ EEZ based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (Unclos).
The JMSU lapsed in 2008 and was not renewed by the Arroyo administration after the agreement drew flak over what the critics branded as a sellout of Philippine sovereignty.
Opposition lawmakers Edcel Lagman of Albay, Tom Villarin of Akbayan and Gary Alejano of Magdalo party-list, who are not aligned with the Suarez-led minority bloc, earlier warned that a joint venture would violate Philippine sovereignty.
“There was a similar agreement in the past, the JMSU, which was not renewed [when it lapsed in 2008]because questions of violating our sovereignty. This nagging question is still current. Whether or not President Duterte pulls out of his travel bag a copy of the arbitral decision sustaining the Philippines’ sovereignty over the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea, China must be constantly reminded of the Philippines’ victory,” Lagman said in a news conference.
Alejano claimed the President was undermining the government’s UN victory by embracing China despite its continued aggression against Filipino fishermen and patrol ships in the West Philippine Sea.
“We should be taking advantage of this ruling. However, the President is weakening our position. Our option is not limited to talking to China or going to war against China. We can talk to China without going to war,” Alejano, a former Marine captain, stressed.
Villarin claimed China had nothing much to offer to the Philippines anyway. “We know that China has been displaying an aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea, and such behavior will not change,” he said.
“Our standing is the UN ruling which upholds the Unclos. China is a signatory of Unclos. This [ruling]gives us the moral high ground. We don’t want to lose that moral high ground in the community of nations,” Villarin said.