Senate of the Philippines

Sotto pushes joint oil exploration with China in West Philippine Sea

Mara Cepeda
Sotto pushes joint oil exploration with China in West Philippine Sea

SENATE LEADER. Senate President Vicente Sotto III presides over the Senate committee of the whole hearing on April 27, 2021.

Alex Nueva España/Senate PRIB

Senate President Vicente Sotto III says oil exploration could be a way to 'underscore' the 2016 Hague ruling and 'use this arbitral victory to our advantage'

Senate President Vicente Sotto III renewed his call for the Philippines to enter into a joint oil exploration deal with China in the West Philippine Sea, saying it would help “underscore” Manila’s arbitral victory over Beijing.

Sotto raised his proposal on Tuesday, May 18, hours after former Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile was invited to Malacañang to cheer on President Rodrigo Duterte’s defeatist approach towards China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea.

The West Philippine Sea is a part of the South China Sea that belongs to the Philippines but China is falsely claiming as its own.

“The public discourse over the WPS boils down to one thing: While the United Nations ruled in our favor, the ruling cannot be put in force because of the absence of an international body that would enforce it. But we can use this arbitral victory to our advantage,” said Sotto in a statement.

He said the Duterte government should already look into jump-starting oil exploration studies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to “underscore” the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which junked China’s expansive claim over the South China Sea.

Should a joint oil exploration deal between the Philippines and China push through, Sotto said a 60-40 rule in the division of resources should be followed.

He said the move would be in favor of Filipinos, as the Duterte government could use revenues to fund social services.

“Hindi naman tayo puwedeng pagbawalan ng China kung gusto nating i-explore ang natural and mineral resources sa ating EEZ dahil atin iyon, pagmamay-ari natin iyon. Kung interesado ang China, puwede naman silang maging joint partner natin pero 60-40 ang hatian dahil tayo ang may-ari nung area,” said Sotto. 

(China can’t stop us if we want to explore our natural and mineral resources in our EEZ because we own that. If China is interested, they can be our joint partner but division should be 60-40 since we own the area.)

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This was backed by Senator Win Gatchalian, who told DWIZ that it is only right for the Philippines to “explore and exploit” resources in the West Philippine Sea.

“Tayo lang ang may karapatan na mag-explore at mag-exploit diyan sa West Philippine Sea dahil nasa loob po ng tinatawag nating exclusive economic zone. Kaya dapat talaga, dapat nating i-maximize ‘yan,”
said Gatchalian.

(We are the only ones who have the right to explore and exploit the West Philippine Sea because that is within our exclusive economic zone. That’s why we really need to maximize that.)

The senator then backed Duterte’s pacifist stance on the West Philippine Sea, saying that a “military and global” power like China should not be antagonized.

In October 2020, Duterte had already lifted his predecessor’s ban on oil exploration in the West Philippine Sea, bringing the country one step closer to implementing a joint exploration deal with China.

Duterte told: Don’t disregard other options

Duterte, however, has downplayed the Philippines’ tribunal victory over China numerous times in favor of getting loans and grants from Beijing. He claims that insisting on the Philippines’ legal triumph would only spark war with China. 

Critics have said the Philippines can forge stronger alliances with other nations to put more pressure on China to leave the West Philippine Sea.

Senator Panfilo Lacson said on Tuesday that while he agrees with Duterte and Enrile that diplomacy should be the first option, that does not mean completely disregarding other options to stop China’s illegal activities in the West Philippine Sea.

“I agree with former Senate president Enrile…. Diplomacy should be our first, if not best, option. But neither should we disregard other options available, not only to finally resolve the West Philippine Sea issue but to provide the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Lacson in a statement. 

He reiterated his suggestion for the Philippines to build stronger alliances with other militarily powerful countries which may be willing to help Filipinos “as it would also advance their own national interests if they maintain their presence alongside our naval assets in the vicinity of the WPS.”

This was echoed by Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto, who warned China is out to build more military outposts in Philippine waters.

“We will have to work with our allies [like the] US and others who share similar interest and values of a rule-based order. It is in the interest of most nations to uphold our UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) victory,” said Recto.

He also said the Philippines can opt to maintain trade relations with China at the same time. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.