Wednesday, October 21, 2015

South China Sea oil and gas explorations: Will China honor its words?

High ranking government officials in the Philippines had batted out the idea of sealing an agreement with China to allow a room that will pave the way for an acceptable solution in the form of partnership to further explore oil and gas deposits in the disputed South China Sea territory.

A group of disputed islands now being claimed by China.
Photo: wikipedia
In an informal press briefing hosted by TV5 in Manila, Sen. Gregorio Honasan, now running as one of the six candidates vying for the post of vice president with the opposition's standard bearer Vice President Jejomar Binay, suggested that instead of going into war with China, the Philippines may opt to agree for a 30-70 business partnership in so far as royalties are concerned. China, considered highly equipped with mineral exploration technology, and had already established expansions by building permanent structures which had been misconstrued by political observers as a way to let the world know that it has the legal rights to re-establish its historical sovereignty over some of the islands and atolls in the area.

But this was objected by the Philippines, along with other Asean nations, considering that the Spratlys belonged to the West Philippine Sea by virtue of a legal provision of the United Nations on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) that islands, reefs and atolls within the 200 nautical miles of a particular country must have jurisdiction with those areas. China, however, disputed this assertion by invoking historical significance for its claims of most parts of the South China Sea.

Honasan made the statement in light of questions that should he win the vice presidential post in the 2016 national elections he would prefer to be posted as the country's National Security Adviser than any other post in the government. It would be recalled that Honasan led a failed coup attempt against the administration of then President Corazon C. Aquino, which put his military career in jeopardy for many years. When he came out of the shadows, he ran as senator and won.

Talking about the sensitivity of the issues that hound the claims over some of the territories in the South China Sea is a very complex matter that concerns the United Nations in general  and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)  in particular. In fact, the Philippines, being part of the ASEAN, has lodged a formal complaint with the Court of Arbitration in The Hague, The Netherlands,  a couple of months back, to further question the construction of military garrisons in some of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, especially in areas where freedom of navigation in the international seas could be hampered.

A disputed island where China built structures. Photo: flickr
Going back, what the lawmaker was hinting is that the Philippine government should re-think of a policy that will open up a path leading to a dialogue between the two countries in order to iron out the frameworks needed to talk on matters that are important to both countries.

As this developed, some political pundits have expressed doubts over China's sincerity on this issue. For instance, even after the Chinese leader had visited Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago, Chinese hackers had started poking and hacking on sensitive websties in the United States, to the consternation of some government officials. It wasn't the first time that Chinese hackers had done this. If I remember it correctly, Chinese hackers had also defaced some of the government websites in the Philippines many months back. What I'm saying is that Chinese officials maybe sporting those sweet smiles during official talks. But when they turn their backs, they night do the opposite.

Now, talking of oil and gas explorations in the South China Sea is not impossible to achieve. Already, China had hinted in the past that it is open to bilateral negotiations with the Philippines in so far as energy explorations in the SCS are concerned. How valid is China's sincerity in this aspect remains to be seen. Until both countries sit down together, away from the eyes of UNCLOS, to iron out the kinks of the relationships may be a welcome development.

However, this impending development is not without concerns. If the Philippines agrees to China's proposal to undergo joint explorations in the disputed territories in the SCS, one of the things that the Philippine representatives must do is to make sure that no provision in the agreement is violated. Being a developing country itself, whose technology is not a par with China's, proper monitoring on how oil and gas productions are siphoned off to offshore rigs remains a big problem.

In this joint endeavor, it is given that China will provide all the equipment necessary to undertake explorations in a vast area like the South China Sea. Meaning China will be spending more than what it could afford to find rich oil and gas deposits underneath these vast oceans. Therefore, it is only reasonable that China will get at least 70 percent of the production ratio. But in the thick of things, what is the guarantee that China will not, under any circumstances, deviate from the provisions of the accord? With all the modern facilities that it has, it would be very easy for China to just flick its fingers and make a magic out of the oil and gas productions that it is capable of doing.

I put these hang-ups in advance so that Philippine government officials may be forewarned on what China is thinking should it agrees to enter into an agreement with the Philippines and the rest of the claimant countries in Asean.

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