[ANALYSIS] Just how valuable is the West Philippine Sea?

JC Punongbayan
[ANALYSIS] Just how valuable is the West Philippine Sea?
The monetary value of our marine ecosystems in 2007 was thought to be US$966.59 billion, or close to $1 trillion. Using the 2007 exchange rate, that’s P44.61 trillion or nearly 6.5 times our GDP back then.

In his China visit this week, President Rodrigo Duterte will be “invoking” our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) – or at least he says he will.

It’s high time he did so.

Duterte’s singular reluctance to invoke the arbitral tribunal’s ruling – which came out more than 3 years ago – has only emboldened multiple Chinese boats and vessels to crisscross Philippine waters with utmost impunity.

A Chinese militia vessel even brazenly rammed and sank a Filipino fishing boat in June. The Chinese offered a perfunctory apology only on Wednesday, August 28, and the embattled Filipino fishermen were unsatisfied with it.

A vast majority of Filipinos also clamor for Duterte’s assertion of our sovereign rights. In June, 87% of adults said the government “should assert its right to the islands in the West Philippine Sea as stipulated in the 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.”

But aside from being a legal and political issue, fighting for the WPS is also a gut issue, what with the immense economic wealth that lies therein.

But just how much?

Putting a price tag on the WPS is immensely difficult. But in this article let’s try to triangulate the answer from various studies and data sources.

Marine wealth

First, we have to admit our economic indicators are too fixated on measuring our nation’s income rather than our nation’s wealth.

Income differs from wealth in the same way water flowing into a bathtub differs from the amount of water in the bathtub.

We constantly cite GDP or gross domestic product, which roughly refers to our nation’s income.

By contrast, we scarcely have a grasp of how large our economy’s total wealth is, not just in terms of buildings, roads, or machinery, but also in terms of natural resources like land, oil, minerals, and marine resources.

Marine wealth is particularly tricky to measure, and even the World Bank has yet to collect and report pertinent data in its 2018 global wealth report.

This is not to say this is impossible. In fact, in 2017 a groundbreaking study estimated the total value of the Philippines’ marine resources.

Long story short, the monetary value of our marine ecosystems in 2007 was thought to be US$966.59 billion, or close to $1 trillion.

Using the 2007 exchange rate, that’s P44.61 trillion or nearly 6.5 times our GDP back then.

If you include further the value of our continental shelf, our marine wealth balloons to $1.5 trillion, or P69.24 trillion. That’s 10 times our GDP in 2007.

These figures are far from precise; I best refer you to an online copy of the paper.

Be mindful, at the very least, that these figures include only the value of coral reefs, seagrass, mangroves, and the continental shelf. Importantly, they leave out other vital marine resources like fisheries, oil, and natural gas.

West Philippine Sea in focus

What about the WPS in particular? What do we stand to gain or lose there?

Here, unfortunately, the data are even sparser.

1) Fisheries

According to geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan, in his 2014 book Asia’s Cauldron, fish stocks in the WPS could account for a tenth of the global landed catch.

In recent years the Chinese have been exploiting ever-increasing fish stocks in key areas of the WPS.

Scarborough Shoal, for instance, was declared a common fishing ground by the arbitral tribunal in 2016. But the Chinese still routinely kick out Filipinos and other nationalities from its central lagoon, which teems with fish.

In his last State of the Nation Address, Duterte also mentioned a “verbal” deal he supposedly struck with Beijing that would allow the Chinese to fish in Recto Bank (Reed Bank), which falls squarely within our Exclusive Economic Zone.

Such a deal is not just patently unconstitutional but also grossly unfair since Recto Bank covers an area of 8,660 sq km or 58 times as large as Scarborough Shoal. That’s equivalent to about 14 Metro Manilas.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio also warned that the Chinese can “very quickly” deplete fish stocks in Recto Bank, what with their massive fishing fleets and trawlers.

2) Coral reefs

The Chinese, in their bid to construct artificial islands in the WPS, have also dealt “catastrophic” damage to our coral reefs.

Latest satellite imagery show damaged reefs now extend to 550 hectares in Panatag Shoal and 1,300 hectares in the Spratlys. Marine scientists claim such damage costs our country at least P33.1 billion a year.

The destruction of coral reefs makes reproduction harder for the lucky fish which escape Chinese nets and trawlers. As far as environmental degradation is concerned, this is a veritable double whammy.

In the past, the Chinese have also brazenly poached other denizens of our reefs, such as sea turtles and giant clams.

3) Oil and gas

The WPS is also said to be vastly rich in oil and natural gas.

Again based on Kaplan’s book, Asia’s Cauldron, there are about 7 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas proven to lie beneath the WPS.

Some estimates even go as high as 130 billion barrels of oil. If true, said Kaplan, that would make the WPS second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of oil reserves. The WPS might even be called “the second Persian Gulf.”

Justice Carpio, in his seminal e-book, adds the West Philippine Sea is also potentially rich in methanol – an alternative biofuel – which “can fuel China’s economy for 130 years.”

Even a small portion of these resources could go a long way to ensure the Philippines’ energy security in the coming decades.

4) Territories

And then, of course, we risk ceding to China vast swathes of our national territory.

By Justice Carpio’s reckoning – and based on China’s dubious nine-dash line – China aims to grab from us a total of 531,000 sq km of maritime space.

That’s 77% larger than the Philippines’ total land area.

More precisely, it encompasses 80% of our Exclusive Economic Zone, including the whole of Recto Bank and part of the Malampaya gas field. At the same time, China is encroaching on all of our extended continental shelf.

Beware unfair deals

Notwithstanding the imprecise and incomplete estimates, it’s clear (and intuitive) that the total value of our marine resources exceed our nation’s income many times over.

In the end, though, putting a price tag on the WPS might not be all that important.

Much more crucial is how we assert our sovereign rights as spelled out by our Constitution and the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling.

In his current trip to Beijing, Duterte will reportedly raise a prospective 60-40 oil and gas exploration deal. This follows a related memorandum of understanding signed between Manila and Beijing in November.

But for the sake of current and future Filipinos, Duterte should be wary of entering such deals. With everything that has been illegally taken from us, it’s clear by now Beijing is no trustworthy “friend.”

Why strike a deal with a serial bully, robber, and land-grabber? – Rappler.com


The author is a PhD candidate at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com).


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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for Rappler.com. He is also co-founder of UsapangEcon.com and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.