Chinese President Xi Jinping ended a state visit to the Philippines on Wednesday as Filipino lawmakers pressed their government for full disclosure about a raft of new bilateral deals, including for oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte feted Xi at a dinner on Tuesday, shortly after they witnessed the signing of 29 vaguely worded documents. These included deals on cooperation in culture, industrial park development, agriculture, sanitation protocols and coconut importation.
Xi and Duterte also oversaw the signing of three economic agreements on infrastructure projects on southern Mindanao island in conjunction with Duterte’s ambitious “build, build, build” initiative, according to the presidential palace in Manila. It did not release details, but a memorandum of understanding on cooperation over oil and gas development in the disputed sea caught the eye of many people.
“The people need to scrutinize all these documents. We need to know whether or not these agreements are compatible with our sovereign and territorial interests and in full compliance with our international obligations, particularly the arbitral tribunal ruling on the West Philippine Sea,” opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
“The Senate must lead this initiative given that it has material interest in ensuring that the foreign policy adopted by the Executive is in the best interest of Filipino citizens,” she said.
Complete details of the MoU on oil and gas exploration were not released, but BenarNews saw a copy. It states both countries agreed on a sharing deal, under which the Philippines would get a 60 percent stake in resources extracted from the Reed Bank and China would get the remaining 40 percent.
The Reed Bank, however, lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
“The Philippines lost big in this agreement. If the leaked copy of the agreement is proven authentic, President Duterte signed a document that did not assert our Constitution and sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea against China’s discredited nine-dash line, which lays claim to every shoal, reef and islet in the region,” according to Hontiveros, who said she had read portions of the agreement.
The senator said a “confidentiality clause” was also attached to the deal, with both sides agreeing to keep any data about the joint exploration work confidential.
Sen. Chiz Escudero, an erstwhile political ally of Duterte, agreed. He said the government must be transparent, especially in agreements involving the country’s resources.
“I am asking on behalf of the nation that the government let the public know details of the exploration deal between the Philippines and China,” Escudero said.
He recalled that former president Gloria Arroyo, who is now speaker of the House of Representatives, at one time oversaw the signing of an agreement with China and Vietnam to explore for oil near the disputed sea region. That agreement caused a public uproar and was never pursued.
Escudero also stressed that any agreement on joint exploration should be between two private firms, and not directly state controlled. “It should not be between the governments of the Philippines and China because that could have future implication in the arbitral ruling,” he said.
“While the government cannot enforce the ruling of the international court that granted the Philippines ownership over territories in the disputed sea, the least the government can do is to assert its claim in the policy speeches and declarations because this is what the Filipino people are expecting,” he said.
In 2016, an international arbitration court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and threw out China’s expansive claims to the sea region, which it says it owns almost in its entirety based on historical grounds. Beijing snubbed the ruling, which was welcomed by the international community as a win for the Philippines.
But Duterte acted swiftly, and appeased China by saying he would not enforce the ruling. He had also said that the Philippines was realigning its foreign policy towards China and Russia, away from a traditional ally, the United States.
When pressed on Wednesday to release details of the agreement, Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s spokesman, said the foreign office was “still preoccupied” with Xi’s state visit and would release it in its entirety soon.
“We assure everyone that the government would release all pertinent information for public consumption once President Xi’s visit has culminated, and as soon as the complete, proper and correct documents become certified and available,” he said in a statement.
Report: Beijing upgrades reef in South China Sea
Meanwhile, satellite imagery had revealed a new platform built by the Chinese in Bombay Reef in the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, a Washington think tank said in a report published on Tuesday.
“The development is interesting given Bombay Reef’s strategic location, and the possibility that the structure’s rapid deployment could be repeated in other parts of the South China Sea,” according to the report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The new installation first showed up in satellite imagery of the reef taken in early July, but was not present in pictures taken in April, the report noted.
“The reef is directly adjacent to the major shipping lanes that run between the Paracels and the Spratly Islands to the south, making it an attractive location for a sensor array to extend Chinese radar or signals intelligence collection over that important sea lane,” the report said.
The Spratlys are also claimed by the Philippines.