By Karl Romano
The Philippines and China are finalizing an exploration deal in a disputed area of the South China Sea, where 60 percent of the proceeds would go to Manila and the rest to Beijing despite warnings the development could diminish Manila’s claim to the region.
The deal was announced by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano earlier this week, before he traveled to Singapore to attend a regional ministerial meeting where China was also present.
While full details of the proposed deal were not disclosed, Cayetano said officials from both sides and independent experts on international law were drafting a framework for the agreement. The draft deal is likely to be ready this month or in September.
He did not say where the proposed exploration site is, but President Rodrigo Duterte had hinted that an area in the Reed Bank could be open for exploration.
Initial seismic surveys have indicated that Reed Bank, also called Recto Bank, could be rich in natural deposits. While it is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, which was affirmed by an arbitration court in 2016, China has continued to contest its ownership.
Gary Alejano, a former Marine captain who serves as an opposition member of the House of Representatives, said the arbitration ruling specifically puts the area under Philippine control.
“We do not co-own the West Philippine Sea with China,” he said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea. “Why would our government want to share resources that we alone legally own?”
“Just because the Philippines will presumably take a larger share given the 60-40 scheme being proposed, does not guarantee that we are going to be on the winning end,” said Alejano, who has been following developments in the sea region.
“This is ultimately an issue of sovereignty, especially on the question of which law will apply: Is it the Philippine law, Chinese law, or international law? We also have to make sure that the joint exploration would not in any way diminish the arbitration ruling which largely favored the Philippines,” he said.
Meanwhile, security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said the reported agreement was a breakthrough that could propel exploration forward even as Manila should continue to assert its rights in the sea.
“We should not compromise with China, and let them know that we are not giving our rights in that area,” Banlaoi said. “Otherwise, our arrangement with China would fall under suspicion.”
Alejano said it was not a guarantee that Beijing would stick to the agreement, as it has shown in past actions in the region.
China had thumbed down the ruling, even as governments around the world welcomed it as a step toward ensuring peace in the vital sea lane. The South China Sea is considered a powder keg in a region where varying claimants have had armed confrontations.
A sham policy?
The Spratlys, an island chain in the sea, are claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
It is considered a flashpoint in the region, and while the claimants have agreed to desist from any actions that would complicate the matter, China has been expanding and militarizing islands it occupies.
Alejano argued that the Philippine-China exploration deal would have implications to the other claimants and may be used by Beijing as a premise that it could enter into bilateral agreements with other countries.
“The Duterte administration should realize that the decision whether to pursue a joint exploration or not would define our relationship with China and our relationship with our neighboring countries as well,” Alejano said.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros branded the Philippines-China deal as “preposterous and dangerous.”
“It reverses our historic victory at The Hague and signs away Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea,” she said in a statement.
“We have sovereign rights to access offshore oil and gas field, including the Reed Bank, within our 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. We don’t share ownership of the West Philippine Sea with China,” Hontiveros said.
She also questioned Duterte’s independent foreign policy which was turning out as a sham policy meant to benefit China.
Duterte has adopted a pro-China policy since he took power in June 2016.
In Singapore, where ASEAN foreign ministers were attending their annual ministerial meeting, the 10-nation bloc announced it had reached a milestone in talks with China to establish a code of conduct in the sea region.
Negotiations for the code started in March, and the first draft was completed in June in China, Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan said. He declined to divulge details, citing the sensitivity of the issue, but did say that while negotiations were completed, the code would not necessarily bring an end to territorial disputes.
A draft of the ministerial statement seen by BenarNews said foreign ministers would express their concerns to China’s continued reclamation in the region. It said China’s move has eroded trust and confidence and could undermine security and stability.
The group also emphasized the importance of “non-militarization and self-restraint” in the conduct of activities in the disputed region, so as not to escalate tensions.
The draft is subject to negotiations and could be refined by the time the ministerial meeting ends on Saturday.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.