Talking ‘cooperation’ on the South China Sea

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Following the famous dictum of Theodore Roosevelt “to speak softly but with a big stick,” Filipino diplomats may be able to talk more persuasively about Philippines-China cooperation in the South China Sea with the ongoing modernization of their Armed Forces and the burnishing of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. While Justice Antonio Carpio has presented a well-researched and argued paper on the Philippine claims in the West Philippine Sea, talking “sovereignty” with Chinese officials has proved a non-starter to a productive dialogue.

Cooperation on the exploitation of resources need not be conditioned on the settlement of territorial sovereignty claims. Fish don’t carry passports, and no one knows about the boundaries of potential reserves of oil and natural gas. Millions of people in the area depend on fish as a means of sustenance and subsistence. There is a growing need for oil and natural gas to fuel the fast-growing economies in the area. But settlement of the sovereignty question may take time, if ever.

Cooperation, rather than sovereignty, as a topic of conversations with China is not new.

Under the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by the Foreign Ministers of Asean countries and the Special Envoy and Vice Minister of China on 4 November 2002 in Phnom Penh, the Parties undertook to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without the threat or use of force through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accord with universally recognized principles of international law including the 1992 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.


But pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of the disputes, the Declaration proposed to the Parties the following list of cooperative activities: 1. Marine environmental protection, 2. Marine scientific research, 3. Safety of navigation and communications at sea, 4. Search and rescue operation, and 5. Combatting transnational crimes, piracy, and armed robbery at sea. The list is not exhaustive.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea under Art. 123 obliges State Parties to cooperate with other States in the management, conservation, exploration and exploitation of the living resources of the sea. . There is an urgent need for measures to stop and reverse the depletion of fish stocks in the South China Sea brought by unbridled fishing and destructive fishing methods.

Then Speaker Jose de Venecia suggested on August 8, 2007 the creation of a “Fisheries Corridor” entailing the establishment of a tri-nation fisheries port, fish processing, cold storage, and cannery complex in Palawan, and on the Chinese and Vietnamese coasts.

As to the exploitation of oil and natural gas, the state oil firms of the Philippines, China and Vietnam undertook a $5 million joint marine seismic study covering 143,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea, beginning September 1 and ending 16 November 2007.

The countries involved in the study may consider pursuing the study from where it left off.

There are examples of joint arrangements for the development of energy reserves in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand was created as an interim measure to exploit the natural resources in the seabed and continental shelf claimed by the two countries without extinguishing the legal rights to claims by both countries . The Nigeria-Sao Tome and Principe Joint Development Authority is an organization established by treaty that regulates the two countries’ Joint Development Zone along the maritime Nigeria-Sao Tome and Principe border. It was established because neither country could explore the potentially rich oil and natural gas reserves without interfering with the maritime territory of the other.

It is to be hoped that the spirit of cooperation and understanding among the South China Sea claimants will take the place of acrimonious debate and sabre-rattling over territorial sovereignty claims. For there are greater challenges facing them, greater than even these territorial disputes.

One is climate change, whose consequences have wreaked havoc with terrible costs in lives, property, and public infrastructure in the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and other countries in the region. Exploitation of the energy resources in the area must be accompanied by measures to minimize carbon emissions. Or it may be better to keep the oil underground and settle for alternative sources of energy.

Another is maintaining the momentum of economic growth and closing the gap between wealthy and poor, predicated on global interdependence and on the continued peace and stability of the region.

(Jaime J. Yambao is retired from the Foreign Service and served as Ambassador to Pakistan and Laos, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, and Assistant Secretary for European Affairs) .

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  1. Teddy Roosevelt dictum is really “Walk softly and carry a big stick”. The only language China will understand is use of force. They know that we are no match against their military, they will keep on pushing the issue until they get what they want. They need that oil and the fishes to feed their monster economy and people. The sooner we get the military MOU with the US the better the Philippine security is going to be.