Nonnegotiables in China oil talks
The Supreme Court spoke clearly early this year when it ruled that a 2005 oil exploration deal between the Philippines, China, and Vietnam—often touted by more pragmatic politicians and business leaders as a model for solving the territorial impasse in the West Philippine Sea—was, after all, unconstitutional.
Thus, the High Tribunal, which is the ultimate authority when interpreting the provisions of the country’s fundamental law, has set down as plainly as possible for local policymakers and their foreign counterparts to see what is feasible going forward and what it not.
More recently, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) revealed that a fresh round of talks on the possible joint search for oil and other mineral fuels with China in the disputed territory is once more on that table, with one such negotiation to be held next month.Given what the Supreme Court has already decreed—and barring any miraculous capitulation from China on their stand that the entire South China Sea is theirs to do with as they please—it is difficult to see anything substantial coming out of this resumption of talks for oil and gas exploration.
The ruling that the proposed sites for searching for oil and gas resources in the West Philippine Sea must not undermine the country’s sovereignty is now set in stone. The path charted by the Arroyo administration almost two decades ago of jointly exploiting the commercial potential of the undersea resources on a 50-50 basis while leaving the question of who owns the territory unresolved is no longer viable.This position must serve as the baseline of the Marcos administration and the DFA when it resumes talks with China next month. Anything less than that is a waste of time.
Our senators are correct when they advised caution for government negotiators who will be speaking to their Chinese counterparts on this issue next month. With tensions between both countries high, it will be tempting to try to defuse the situation by giving in to the promise of a way forward that could undermine the Philippine position. China is a wily negotiator that has the added advantage of being in physical possession (albeit illegally) of the maritime areas being disputed. But the Philippine side, too, has its advantages, specifically the acknowledgment of the broader international community that it is in the right on this issue.
Our negotiators should heed the lessons offered by the country’s longstanding claim on Sabah which, although historically strong, has practically no way of being successfully enforced. We must use our problem-solving abilities, creativity, and wile to make sure this kind of history does not repeat itself in the resource rich West Philippine Sea—largely ours only in name.At the same time, however, our negotiators should not rush for a solution and over eagerly grab the first seeming concession offered by China. We can be patient.But perhaps most importantly, Philippine officials will now go to the negotiating table with a new ace up their sleeve: the Marcos administration’s new resolve in countering Chinese aggression through deeper geopolitical ties with the US and other like-minded allies.These upcoming talks also present an opportunity for the Chinese government—which has constantly been professing its undying friendship to the Philippines even while making all sorts of aggressive and belligerent moves in our exclusive economic zone, including bullying hapless Filipino fishermen—to put its money where its mouth is by offering a meaningful deal that acknowledges our territorial rights.
The bottom line is that everyone should remember that joint exploration and its potential fruits are welcome, but not at the expense of Philippine sovereignty. It is difficult to see anything substantial coming out of this resumption of talks for oil and gas exploration, given the Supreme Court’s crystal clear interpretation of the Constitution on this nonnegotiable matter.Given the highly charged environment that China and the Philippines find themselves in today, any form of two-way communication, even if they prove to be contentious at the outset, is a welcome start to resolving thorny territorial issues.
As the great Winston Churchill once said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”
Indeed, diplomacy is better than the use or the threat of force. But Philippine policymakers must be guided by the clarity provided by the high tribunal and stand firm on asserting Filipinos’ rights while working to move things forward.