Joint oil ex­plo­ration a pipe dream?

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - OPINION - ALITO L. MALI­NAO

For­eign Sec­re­tary Alan Peter Cayetano’s exuberant an­nounce­ment that Pres­i­dent Duterte and China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping had ap­proved a joint oil ex­plo­ration ven­ture in the South China Sea could turn out to be a pipe dream and could give the Filipino peo­ple false hopes.

Af­ter Mr. Duterte’s lat­est trip to China to at­tend the Boao Fo­rum for Asia, Cayetano an­nounced that the two lead­ers had “es­sen­tially given the go-sig­nal” to work out a frame­work for the project, with Xi os­ten­si­bly say­ing that if the Philip­pines wanted joint ex­plo­ration, Bei­jing would be will­ing “to dis­cuss and find a so­lu­tion” to the dis­pute in the South China Sea.

Cayetano said that if this ven­ture would push through, it could ben­e­fit the Philip­pines on a big scale con­sid­er­ing that Recto Bank (in­ter­na­tion­ally known as Reed Bank), the area tar­geted for ex­plo­ration, has es­ti­mated re­serves of 5.4 bil­lion bar­rels of oil and 55.1 tril­lion cu­bic feet of nat­u­ral gas based on a study by the US En­ergy In­for­ma­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

He fur­ther said the planned ven­ture with China could be bet­ter than Malam­paya—a ref­er­ence to the nat­u­ral gas ex­trac­tion project with Shell in the wa­ters off Palawan where the gov­ern­ment is get­ting 60 per­cent of the net earn­ings.

But those who are fa­mil­iar with China’s brand of diplo­macy would be wary of Cayetano’s ec­static pro­nounce­ments. Be­ing a lawyer but ob­vi­ously a neo­phyte in diplo­macy, the for­eign sec­re­tary should keep his en­thu­si­asm to him­self and not jump to a spe­cific con­clu­sion that could turn out to be il­lu­sory and unattain­able.

Last March, af­ter his bi­lat­eral meet­ing with Cayetano in Bei­jing, China’s For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi said the two coun­tries would ad­vance co­op­er­a­tion on off­shore oil and gas ex­plo­ration in the con­tested ar­eas in a “pru­dent and steady way,” which is the diplo­matic way of say­ing that the ar­range­ment is a long shot.

This is China’s stan­dard ap­proach in ev­ery­thing that per­tains to the South China Sea. For ex­am­ple, in the craft­ing of the much-bal­ly­hooed Code of Con­duct (COC) on the South China Sea, China has con­sis­tently said it would agree to the adop­tion of such an ac­cord with the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (Asean).

China made this com­mit­ment in 2012, and in the Asean Sum­mit in Manila in 2017 it signed a frame­work for the adop­tion of the COC with a one-year timetable for the fi­nal sign­ing of the ac­cord.

Yet up to now the COC is still in limbo, and Sin­ga­pore, which is chair­ing Asean this year, has said that it would take years be­fore such an ac­cord could be signed, all be­cause China has en­gaged in diplo­matic ma­neu­ver­ings to de­lay its com­ple­tion.

This is ex­actly what is go­ing to hap­pen with the sup­posed joint oil ex­plo­ration project about which Cayetano is eu­phoric, be­cause of some se­ri­ous le­gal con­cerns.

Act­ing Chief Jus­tice An­to­nio Car­pio has been un­equiv­o­cal in say­ing that such an ar­range­ment with China would vi­o­late our Con­sti­tu­tion. Car­pio cites the con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sion that the state shall pro­tect its marine wealth in its ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone and re­serve its use and en­joy­ment ex­clu­sively for Filipino cit­i­zens.

Philip­pine sovereignty over the con­tested ar­eas has also been rec­og­nized by the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion in The Hague, in its rul­ing in July 2016. China must first rec­og­nize this sovereignty be­fore any joint un­der­tak­ing can be done, Car­pio said.

But will China agree to this? Ab­so­lutely not, for two rea­sons: 1) it does not rec­og­nize the ar­bi­tral court rul­ing; and 2) Xi him­self has said that al­most the en­tire South China Sea has been part of China “since an­cient times” and that it is China’s “bounden duty” to up­hold its sovereignty in the dis­puted ter­ri­tory.

That is pre­cisely why China’s for­eign min­is­ter has called for “pru­dence” in work­ing on any joint oil ex­plo­ration. And this is what Cayetano should do: He should ex­er­cise pru­dence and re­straint in is­su­ing state­ments re­gard­ing this pro­posed joint project.

———— Alito L. Mali­nao is a for­mer diplo­matic re­porter and news edi­tor of the Manila Stan­dard. He now teaches jour­nal­ism at the Pa­man­tasan ng Lung­sod ng Maynila and is the au­thor of the book “Jour­nal­ism for Filipinos.”

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