President Duterte personally made a decision to let China conduct scientific research off the Philippines’ Pacific coast, his spokesman said on Monday, despite concern among critics about threats to maritime sovereignty.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said that as chief architect of foreign policy, Duterte – through the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) – allowed China to work with the University of the Philippines in Benham Rise, an area roughly the size of Greece and believed by some scientists to be rich in biodiversity and tuna.
The United Nations (UN) declared Benham Rise, off the Pacific coast, part of the continental shelf of the Philippines in 2012. Manila last year renamed it the “Philippine Rise.”
Though China does not lay claim to the area, the lingering presence of its vessels for several months in late 2016 triggered concern about its intentions.
The Philippines granting of the permission to China was not announced and was revealed a few days ago by Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate who has been fiercely critical of Duterte’s close ties with Beijing.
The Philippines and China have a long history of maritime squabbles over sovereignty in the South China Sea, but there has been no disagreement about waters off Manila’s Pacific coast.
Roque said anyone opposed to the joint research project should go to Congress and raise the issue there.
“If this is not a wise move of the President, then a law could be enacted to prohibit it,” he said.
The Philippines would grant permission to any other country that might show interest in conducting maritime research at Benham Rise, Roque added.
Earlier, Zarate urged the Supreme Court to declare as unconstitutional the JMSU as it is being used to justify Beijing’s supposed aggressive stance in Benham Rise.
Zarate said the Chinese government is “now very zealous” in taking over the country’s natural gas deposits.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) should rethink its decision to allow Chinese oceanographers to conduct studies in Philippine waters because it is one of the methods they used before under another Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking that China entered with the then Arroyo administration,” Zarate said in a statement.
He observed that China is “apparently doing in Benham Rise the same modus operandi that it used in 2005 that jeopardize our claims in the Recto Reed Bank.”
Zarate noted that through the JMSU signed during the Arroyo administration, China was able to discover and confirm the enormous reserves of natural gas in Recto Reed Bank, where one field already holds about 2.7-3.4 trillion cubic feet of the valuable resource.
“We now also urge the Supreme Court to rule and declare such a disadvantageous and onerous exploration agreement as JMSU as unconstitutional and a nullity,” he said.
In 2008, Bayan Muna filed a petition asking Supreme Court to void the Tripartite Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in the West Philippine Sea among the Philippine National Oil Co. (PNOC), China National Offshore Oil Corp., and the Vietnam Oil and Gas Corp.
Former President Arroyo, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary of the Department of Energy, the PNOC Exploration Corp. and the PNOC were named respondents in the case.
“With the JMSU, the Arroyo administration effectively sold out the country to the Chinese, who were granted an unbridled access in our maritime territory, especially the gathering of valuable data on natural gas deposits in our territories like the Recto Reed Bank. The Philippines has no more control and supervision over the exploration of our petroleum and other mineral oils under the JMSU Tripartite Agreement; this should not happen again,” Zarate said.
He said the SC should immediately look into and resolve the questions hovering around the JMSU in the face of possible bilateral and multilateral talks between the Philippines, China, and other claimant-parties in the West Philippine Sea and even in Benham Rise.
“While we are for the peaceful resolution of our maritime dispute with China, we must, however, be wary of these joint exploration agreements because of our bad experience with the JMSU, where our country was placed in a very disadvantageous position, as what happened during Arroyo’s time and is bound to happen again in the case of Benham Rise,” the progressive solon said.
“Any future joint exploration with China must protect the interest of the Filipino people and should contribute to the country’s economic development. It must also recognize our territorial integrity and sovereignty. There must be no repeat of the highly unequal JMSU,” Zarate said. (With reports from Charissa L. Atienza and Genalyn D. Kabiling)