Malacañang on Saturday insisted there was nothing wrong with a possible joint exploration with China within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) despite unresolved disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
In a news conference in Zamboanga del Norte, Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said the joint exploration was sanctioned by the Supreme Court, citing a 2004 ruling that allowed the President to enter into agreements with foreign entities for large-scale explorations.
“It was ruled by the Supreme Court in the case of La Bugal. The problem with the critics of the administration, they want to be the justices of the Supreme Court. They should wait until they are appointed [justice]before they claim to have power to make decisions,” Roque told reporters.
“Joint exploration is allowed by the Constitution if it is in accordance with a contract signed by the President and submitted to Congress. Those who are opposing the joint exploration, they should wait for the next decision of the Supreme Court,” he added.
Roque made the statement after Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said that allowing joint development in the EEZ could be seen as “inconsistent” with the arbitral ruling won by the Philippines.
“Any JD (joint development) agreement by the Philippines with China, therefore, will not be consistent with the Award, nor with UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” Batongbacal was quoted as saying.
“It can only be justified as a purely political accommodation, not a legally warranted arrangement. However, if the Philippines makes the political accommodation, it can contradict its legal position as affirmed by the arbitration,” he added.
The West Philippine Sea is within the Philippines’ EEZ in the South China Sea, where Beijing has asserted expansive claims and fortified artificial islands.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday said joint exploration with China could be likened to co-ownership of the disputed area with the Asian giant.
But Roque downplayed the President’s remarks, saying Duterte was just trying to simplify the term “joint exploration” and ended up using “co-ownership.”
Corporations, not states
Roque insisted that a joint exploration in undisputed and disputed waters was legal, citing Service Contracts (SC) 57 and 72, which were being considered for joint exploration “by corporations and not by sovereign states.”
“A joint exploration in undisputed area like 57 and in disputed area like 72 was constitutional,” he said, referring to Service Contracts 57 and 72.
“My recommendation to Professor Batongbacal, read first the decision of the Supreme Court before giving your opinion,” he added.
SC 57, which covers offshore Northwest Palawan or west of the Calamian islands, has been pending since 2005 and has been delayed due to administrative issues.
According to the contract, state-run China National Offshore Oil Company farmed-in into SC 57 in 2006 acquiring 51 percent participating interest.
SC 72, which covers Recto or Reed Bank, is also located within the 200-nautical mile (370-km) EEZ of the Philippines, but it rests in a portion of the sea being claimed by China.
Discussions on SC 72 hit a snag after then president Benigno Aquino 3rd questioned the basis of China’s claims before an international arbitration court in January 2013, a case that Manila won shortly after he relinquished power to Duterte in July 2016.
Duterte refused to force China to accept the ruling, choosing instead to repair diplomatic and economic ties with Beijing as he shifted foreign policy away from Manila’s traditional ally, Washington.