Saturday, February 23, 2008

Senate to probe on secret Spratly deal

The Philippines has yet to benefit from the US$500 million North Rail Agreement between the Philippines and China, even if its blueprint for implementation has been prepared many months back.

Reason? The Chinese government has yet to see a sealed agreement that will eventually allow China to explore part of the Philippine continental shelf in the Spratly Group of Islands, where the Philippine government has established sovereignty over the Kalayaan Group of Island, as part of a concession signed by the present administration and that of Vietnam. Vietnam used to contest the joint exploration in that part of the South China Sea.

The controversy came out after an article published by the Far Eastern Economic Review outlined this tripartite undertaking in violation of the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Barry Wain, a former Wall Street Journal Asia editor and now writer-in residence for the Singapore-based Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, revealed that the Philippine government under President Arroyo and former House Speaker Jose de Venecia had entered into an agreement that would allow China to undertake explorations in the Spratlys in exchange for loans intended for various development projects in the Philippines.

Under the said deal, "China would be allowed to explore territorial waters of the Philippines." This means that China is expected to cross into the Kalayaan Group of Islands, where a Philippine Marines detachment is posted for security and monitoring purposes.

Wain was quoted as saying that President Arroyo's state visit to China in 2004 paved the way for the two countries to seal the "Agreement for Seismic Undertaking for Certain Areas in the South China Sea by and Between China National Offshore Oil Corporation and the Philippine National Oil Company."

During the time of former President Fidel V. Ramos, China surreptitiously encroached into the Philippine territorial waters by erecting concrete structures as berthing posts for its fishing vessels in time of storms. The illegal structures were beamed into the U.S. satellites which eventually tipped the Department of National Defense in Manila.

The Department of Foreign Affairs immediately called on the Chinese ambassador to explain on the matter and asked him to inform the Chinese government how infuriated the Philippine government over this sensitive matter. It didn't take long before China destroyed the said structures even before the Philippine Air Force dispatched its fighter planes to bomb the illegal structures.

This new development is something that should not be taken granted. Nobody can say now as to whether the NBN-ZTE broadband scandal is part of this secret exploration deal in the Spratlys. Not seemingly contented with the first deal in 2004, China seemed to have used its big muscles to pressure the Philippines into giving in more to its demands to go ahead with the Spratly explorations.

In the first place, what seemed to be mysterious about China's insistence is that some parts of the Spratlys are reportedly rich in mineral and marine resources like oil and marine species. Which is the primary reason, perhaps, why China is so much interested to go for it, despite the odds.

It may be hard to accept it, but the Philippines doesn't have yet the technical and financial capabilities to explore its territorial waters in the Spratlys. This could be the reason why China had seized the opportunity to offer its services by entering into an agreement for joint exploration of the Spratly Islands.

Now, the tip off could be an added bonus to what Lozada already did to whistle-blow the multi-million NBN-ZTE anomaly. Surely, the concerned senators will not be happy about this negative report considering that the secret deal may had been an instrument that would have sold off part of the Philippine sovereignty to foreign powers like China.

Besides, this could be a cause for alarm to most Filipinos who may have thought all the while that the government is entering into bilateral agreements for the betterment of the country. With this latest development, Filipinos will no doubt question more about the government's neglect to observe full transparency in terms of agreements with foreign governments.

By allowing China to peek into the Philippine territory would be misconstrued by the United States and other Asean-member countries as a means of softening its stance on regional security in the South China Sea. Perhaps, the Philippine Senate is the only bastion of power that may have the legal authority to probe once more about these new allegations.

And there is a strong need to allow the public to know more in the spirit of full transparency in government. After all, it will not be present generation who will suffer from these irregularities but the future children who may have no other option but to repay what the present government owed to the foreign lenders.

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