The Philippine government is “seriously studying” the possibility of conducting joint exploration of natural resources with China in the West Philippine Sea, Ambassador to China Jose Santiago "Chito" Sta. Romana has said.
In a report by GMA News' Jam Sisante, Romana said the Department of Energy and Department of Foreign Affairs had been studying the prospect of jointly exploring with Beijing the disputed waters.
"The basic challenge here is how to do it, whether with a US company or a British company or a Chinese company, so that you can have a joint venture or a joint development, whatever you want to call it, that is in line our constitutional requirements," Sta. Romana said at a news forum.
Sta. Romana said the government needed to know what natural resources could be extracted from the West Philippine Sea, especially with the chance that the energy supply from the Malampaya gas fields would be depleted in 10 years.
"The problem is more urgent for the Philippines rather than China because Malampata may be depleted in 10 years. So we have to find a way to deal with it," Sta. Romana said.
The West Philippine Sea refers to portions of the South China Sea that are claimed by the Philippines as part of its territory and exclusive economic zone.
China is claiming almost the entire South China Sea despite a recent arbitration ruling that invalidated its historical claims.
President Rodrigo Duterte last week said he was open to having joint oil exploration with China in disputed maritime territories, even as he reiterated that he would eventually bring up with Beijing the ruling of the Hague-based tribunal invalidating its claim over large swaths of the South China Sea.
"Kung gusto ninyo, let's just develop what's the oil there, hati-hati nalang tayo," Duterte said.
"What will I do with the Scarborough Shoal? Swim there everyday? For what? To send my soldiers there to die? Nakalutang lahat? Susmaryosep. I will just have to start with the domestic problems," he added.
In an interview with GMA News' Jessica Soho in Malacañang, Duterte said the Philippines would not be at a disadvantage if it would pursue joint exploration with China in the disputed areas.
"Hindi tayo dehado. Wala talaga tayong magawa because gusto ko man mag-giyera ngayon... maybe you can ask the ambassador... I'm willing to declare war against China tomorrow, provided 'yung entire 7th Fleet, ilagay mo diyan sa, pati yung mga eroplano mo, transfer all the missiles para sigurado tayong manalo," Duterte said.
"E kung mabugbog lang din ako, do you think that we will win? We'll just, we're in the fantasy, do you think we will win in a war? I will not but I will make a noise, certainly because I'm the owner but this is not the time," he added.
Sta. Romana said that any joint exploration agreement with China had to be in accordance with the Constitution.
Aside from being constitutional, University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea director Jay Batongbacal said the terms of any joint exploration agreement between the two countries should be transparent.
The Philippine government must also ensure the deal will not be misconstrued as an acknowledgement of China's sweeping claims over the entirety of West Philippine Sea.
"How do you ensure that a joint exploration, joint development with China is transparent and will result in a fair and equitable allocation of resources, while at the same time avoiding the possibility that it will be used at a later time against you as being proof that you recognized for example the other side's claims," Batongbacal said.
Political analyst and professor Richard Heydarian said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) must form part of the legal basis for any joint exploration agreement the Philippine government will enter into with China.
Heydarian said the government must not allow China to dictate the terms of the joint exploration in the West Philippine Sea.
"You have to have a legal reference point that is mutually acceptable for you to move forward. The problem with China so far is their tendency to go with joint development but on their terms, and this is something I don't find acceptable," Heydarian said.
President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed openness to sharing the natural gas resources in the West Philippine Sea with China although Malacañang has clarified there is no official policy yet on the possible joint exploration with Beijing. —Xianne Arcangel/NB/KG, GMA News