Manila’s best options on the Spratlys dispute.

Much has been said about the treasonous deal Gloria Arroyo forged with Beiijing and Hanoi. But only a few seems to be looking for the best way out of this imbroglio for the Philippines.

The agreement breached the Constitution, offered Philippine terittories for exploration by foreigners and destroyed the political solidarity of the ASEAN, which was the key to the region’s successes against Chinese provocations during the last decade. But now that these damages have been exposed, what steps should Manila take to clean the mess?

If the Philippines would have the JMSU cancelled, she would incur the wrath of China and Vietnam without gaining back the confidence of other ASEAN claimants who must have felt betrayed when Manila bypassed them during the forging of the agreement in 2004.

I can say there’s nothing wrong with scrapping the deal and upsetting Beiijing, if only to promote Philippine interests in the region. But before Manila do that, she must first make sure that she would have the ASEAN to back her up once China explodes in anger. That’s because the Philippines alone could never handle China’s wrath. The Philippines needs to stick with the ASEAN and urge the bloc to face Chinese threat as a united group. This has consistently worked in the past.

Sadly, however, the damage with regards to the unity of these ASEAN claimants has been done and scrapping the deal at this point would not repair it.

What, then, should the Philippines do? Here are my suggestions:

1. Have the tripartite agreement suspended and re-negotiated. 

Right now, the area of the joint pre-exploration study covers only the parts of Spratlys that are claimed by the Philippines, along with legitimate Philippine territories. That’s unacceptable.

The Philippines should have its legitimate territories (i.e. Palawan and the areas around Malampaya) removed from the area of the jopint pre-exploration. Further, Manila should demand that the Chinese and Vietnamese claims be part of the joint study as well, which would even out the playing field and make it equal for all parties.

Further,  the text of the agreement, as well as the result of the pre-exploration study from 2004 to present, should be made public. These should be done to tame down accusations that the agreement is a sell-out on the Philippines’ part.

2. Move to have the tripartite agreement be expanded into a multilateral undertaking. 

The Philippines should urge Vietnam and China to allow Malaysia and Brunei to participate in the joint exploration. This would surely regain their confidence in the Philippines’ intention of keeping ASEAN unity in tact.

Allowing Malaysia and Brunei is totally justifiable. After all, the logic behind the joint undertaking is to prevent hostilities, right? Hostililities are better avoided  if Manila, Beiijing and Hanoi won’t alienate the other claimants.

Further, including Brunei and Malaysia in the undertaking would serve as an additional safety net against Chinese intentions in the region. And it would restore ASEAN unity, which has been the key to containing China and maintaining stability in the region.

This would, of course, upset the Chinese. The Chinese have been for years desperate of breaking the ranks of the ASEAN members on this issue. That’s because ASEAN unity checks Chinese hegemony in the Spratlys.

But then again what could China do? Invade the Spratlys by force? No way, the US 7th Fleet is still the biggest kid on the block. Use its economic might against the ASEAN claimants? Bring it on, I’m sure the ASEAN can cripple China economically more than China can cripple the ASEAN.

3. File a claim to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

After getting all the ASEAN claimants into the joint undertaking, Congress should then pass the baseline bill that determines the extent of the country’s continental shelf.

This bill is hot stuff in the media lately, especially after the Chinese voiced vehement objections against it. In my view, passing the bill is vital not only because it would strenghten our position on the Spratly issue, but also because it is the key to the establishment of another safety net against probable Chinese threat in the region on the context of the JMSU deal.

Spratlys expert and UP Prof. Harry Roque once asked Rick Carandang on The Correspodents: “if the joint exploration finds out that there’s oil in the Spratly and China tells the Philippines: ‘back off, this oil is mine,’ can the Philippines do anything?”

The Philippines can’t do anything. China’s booming economy needs oil and the Chinese would be willing to use bullying tactics to access oil. Militarilly speaking, the Philippines can’t face China in a showdown. She would have to depend on the United States. But the question is, would the US help the Philippines in case of Chinese aggression in the Spratlys?

Fidel V. Ramos once asked the US to pledge support for the Philippines in case of a shooting war with China in the high seas of the Spratlys. He failed. That’s because Washington thinks that it would not be in the US’ interest to fight China, especially given today’s context of economic interdependence between the two giants. (I disagree, considering that Chinese control of Spratly could undermine the economies of Japan and South Korea, but that’s for another blog entry.)

But, some might ask, isn’t there a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Washington and Manila? Well, yes. But the US can bail out of the MDT because the sovereignty issue on the Spratly has not yet been resolved. Meaning, Chinese attacks on Spratly is technically not considered an attack on Philippine territory because the area is still disputed.

How then can we face China once it turns agressive in its desperate search for oil?

We have to drag the US into honoring its MDT commitment. The question is, how do we do that?

I think the answer lies on the controversial baseline bill in Congress, along with a study of the Institute of  International Legal Studies of the University of the Philippines Law Centre on the extent of the country’s continental shelf. The said study, conducted in 2002, indentifies the extent of the Philippine territories from which the Philippine continental shelf could be extended by 150 nautical miles. This includes the Kalayaan Group of Islands, the Scarborough Shoal and the Benham Rise.

The Philippines should utilize the baseline bill (make it a law) and the UP study, probably along with more research and evidence-gatherings, and file for a claim in the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelfs.

The said UN Comission sits on the continental shelf claims from various countries around the world and determines whether the claims are valid or not. The deadline for submission of claims would be in 2009.

If the Philippines would file its claim to the said UN commission, and the said commission confirms the claim as valid, then the Philippines would have an added leverage against China in case oil is found by the joint exploration team in the Spratlys. Further, the United States would be compelled to defend the Philippines in case of an attack on the Spratlys because a third party (the UN Commission) would have already agreed that the Spratlys is Philippine territory.

Getting the Comission to approve the Philippines’ claim, however, is not an easy task. It requires political will, and money. New Zealand, for example, spent almost 60 billion dollars in gathering evidence to back up its claim. Norway, who is claiming oil-rich parts of the North Pole, spent almost the same amount. It would definitely be burdensome for the Philippines.

But then again I think it would be a good investment, considering the many benefits the Philippines would have should the Commission rule in Manila’s favor.

True, it’s uncertain that the Commission would rule in the Philippines’ favor, but filing the claim would nevertheless be better than doing nothing but wait until oil is discovered in the area through JMSU, and the Chinese bully the hell out of the Filipinos.

I believe doing these three things is vital to advance Philippine interests in the region. But the question is, would the government of Gloria Arroyo be willing to lose millions in kickback from Chinese loans?

If you like what you read here, you will definitely like The Observers, a group blog on politics, society, history, and international affairs. The Nutbox has moved to the said website. 

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