THERE are three crucial points President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. must keep in mind, or work for, in his meetings in China, especially with its President Xi Jinping. I didn’t pull these points out of thin air but are based on the intensive research I did in 2014-2016 that was the basis of my book, Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception.*
First, forget — and bury 6 feet under — the silliness that is the 2016 arbitration ruling by a three-man panel, which the Aquino 3rd regime itself appointed. Six years after it was handed down, the world has forgotten about it. Except, of course, the US (with its usual minions), which after all maneuvered the witless President Aquino 3rd into filing the case, as a smokescreen for his colossal fiasco of losing Scarborough Shoal in the standoff with China in 2012 and in his naiveté that it would recover that lost territory.
That “arbitration” was first a US move to bolster in some legal way its warships’ patrols in the South China Sea, on grounds that what the Chinese (and other claimants) claim are their sovereign territory, territorial waters and exclusive economic zone are, as the Americans insist, international waters that they can sail through as they please. (I put the term arbitration between quotes, as to this day, experts are scratching their heads why it could be an “arbitration” when China refused to participate in it.)
It was secondly a Machiavellian propaganda move to portray China as an expansionist power, bullying a small country like the Philippines.
Contrary to wrong ideas even by Marcos’ current Foreign Affairs secretary, the “arbitration” ruling did not resolve in the slightest way the territorial and maritime-area disputes in the South China Sea, mainly in the Spratlys areas. It did not rule which claims — ours, China’s, Taiwan’s, Vietnam’s, or even the most recent claimant Malaysia’s — were the most legitimate.
As a US Navy think tank concluded after a lengthy study of the disputes: “The reality on the ground is that China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines all permanently occupy features in the Spratlys group; some have done so for over 50 years.”
Second, given this reality, Marcos should impress on the Chinese president that the two countries must do all they can to lower the conflict temperature, especially in the Spratlys. Marcos should convince Xi that while the Philippines recognizes China’s claims, it has its own claims, and that China especially must reduce, or even totally stop, the patrols of its Coast Guard and civilian aquatic-resources vessels in the disputed areas.
Marcos, on the other hand, should order his military top brass to just stop its habit of screaming to media every time it is told — by US intelligence agencies — that Chinese vessels are intruding into Philippine waters, as it has happened several times that such ships are fishing vessels not just of the Chinese but also the Vietnamese.
US operatives actually have been spreading fake news not only to portray China as an aggressor in the South China Sea, but also to provoke the Philippine Navy into a skirmish with the Chinese, as happened in April 2021 when a US-funded research outfit claimed that 200 Chinese “militia vessels” had “swarmed” into the Spratlys. It turned out that these were Chinese fishing vessels in formation to prepare for a storm. The area also was where Vietnam has three fortifications outposts.
Marcos should pursue with Xi the creation of a top-level body consisting of Chinese and Philippine officials that would maintain real-time communications to prevent incidents that could lead to conflicts — even if only word wars — in the Spratlys.
Third, Marcos should pursue with Xi the formulation of a roadmap that would lead to the joint exploration and development of natural gas in the Reed Bank area, which we consider as part of our Kalayaan Island Group but which China claims is within its territory called the Zongsha “archipelago” (even if it is totally submerged).
President Rodrigo Duterte had already set a precedent for this. In November 2018, the two countries’ governments signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation on Oil and Gas Development.” The memorandum called for the organization of a committee consisting of representatives of the two countries which would implement the agreement. However, it met only once, in October 2019, and the pandemic had put on hold further meetings. Duterte in June 2022 officially ended the agreement, believing it should be his successor president who should decide on whether to continue it or not.
The agreement opened a way for settling the disputes in the SCS: joint development of the resources even in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. That could make the South China Sea, as even a vociferous critic of China, retired magistrate Antonio Carpio surprisingly wrote, a “zone of peace.”
The agreement’s intent, as its text put it, is to “negotiate on an accelerated basis arrangements to facilitate oil and gas exploration, and exploitation in relevant maritime areas.” This, it said, “will be without prejudice to the respective legal positions of both governments.”
We need the agreement more than China. It is the fourth-biggest natural-gas exporter, and isn’t desperate to get the natural gas in the Spratlys near us, but so far away from its mainland. In October 2022, China announced that the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. had discovered natural gas and condensate deposits of 50 billion cubic meters in the Baodao oil field in the western South China Sea near Hainan island.
In our case, we are arguably desperate. Our biggest source of natural gas, extracted at the Malampaya Field, is estimated to be depleted by 2024. The field though is just 200 kilometers from the Sampaguita Field in the Reed Bank which is estimated to have 4.6 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas, comparable to Malampaya’s 3.4 Tcf. Sampaguita’s big advantage if natural gas is extracted there is that it could use the underwater pipelines of Malampaya which has transported its gas since 2001 to Batangas facilities, and distributed to generation plants which have accounted for 20 percent of the country’s electricity consumption. The pipeline is crucial in making the well commercially viable.
Leftists and the Yellows, of course, had filed a case in the Supreme Court in 2018 claiming the agreement was unconstitutional. The court though did not rule on it, until it became moot and academic as Duterte ended the agreement weeks before he stepped down from office.
How could a joint venture between the Philippines and China be unconstitutional when the Dutch Shell Exploration and the American Chevron in joint venture with the Philippine National Oil Co. had not just explored for natural gas, but had extracted the hydrocarbon from the Malampaya field for over 20 years now?
If the exploration and extraction of natural gas in the Reed Bank in joint venture with the Chinese would be Marcos’ only accomplishment during his term, he would have served the nation well.
He should be inspired and determined to do so as it was his father who in 1968 authorized the Swedish-Filipino consortium that first discovered the natural gas deposits in that area, the same Sampaguita Field.
In fact, the elder Marcos annexed what he called the Kalayaan Island Group in the 1970s in order to formally incorporate the Reed Bank into Philippine territory, and for the islands there — mainly Pag-Asa — to be made into military outposts to provide security for the natural gas exploration activities in that area.
*Available online at www.rigobertotiglao.com/shop, amazon.com, and Popular Book Store.
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