JOINT EXPLORATIONS in the Spratly Islands are dependent on whether a rules-based conduct in the disputed area is approved by claimant-nations, a Palace spokesman said yesterday, a move that reflects the Philippines’ firm resolve for a multilateral settlement of the issue.
“In disputed areas like Kalayaan [official name for the Spratlys], while we may be open to some way of jointly exploring those areas and jointly exploiting those areas, I think the first thing that needs to be done is we need to have a binding Code of Conduct,” Ramon “Ricky” S. Carandang, secretary of the Presidential Communication Development and Strategic Planning Office, said in a briefing at the Palace.
Pending the forging of such an agreement between claimant-countries, he added, “right now [exploration] remains an aspiration….”
The statement is an apparent policy shift from that issued by President Benigno S. C. Aquino III in May when he said that he is open to an exploration agreement with China as long as Philippine sovereignty is respected.
Both countries have been in a standoff over another part of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), in particular the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal west of Luzon island.
A proposed Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, which could have eased tensions with Beijing, was supposed to be finalized in last month’s ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) but disagreements on the inclusion of sea disputes held off the issuance of a joint communique.
The issue has had repercussions, the recent of which was the request of the Department of Foreign Affairs for the Cambodian envoy to Manila to explain his statement that the “inflexible and non-negotiable position of two countries of ASEAN is dirty politics,” referring to the Philippines and Vietnam.
Mr. Carandang said the absence of a rules-based approach will make it difficult to forge joint exploration deals in the area.
“You have at least five, if I’m not mistaken, claimants. So it will be very difficult for one or two countries to go in there and simply begin exploring while there’s no set of ground rules in place,” he further said.
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan claim in whole or in part the Spratlys, which is reportedly rich in oil reserves.
Meanwhile, the Palace aide assured the provision of security for companies that will be authorized to explore oil and gas within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. This was in response to reports that Beijing has demanded prior permission from China before the conduct of bidding for exploration activities.
“We will exercise our right as a sovereign country to bid out licenses. And if those people who have licenses need protection, we will provide it to the best of our ability,” said Mr. Carandang.
“DoE (Department of Energy) in coordination with PCG (Philippine Coast Guard) and (Philippine) Navy in areas where there are investors, regularly patrol the area,” he added.
According to a Reuters report, China is opening a third front to assert its claims in the South China Sea with its first major tender of oil and gas blocks in disputed parts of its waters.
China National Offshore Oil Corp., a state oil giant, invited foreign firms in late June to bid on oil blocks that overlap territory being explored by Vietnam, putting the 160,000 square kilometers of water on offer at the forefront of Asia’s biggest potential military flash point. — N. M. Gonzales with a report from Reuters