Malacañang on Thursday said the possible joint exploration of natural resources with China in the West Philippine Sea is legal amid concerns that it is a violation of the Constitution.
At a press briefing, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque clarified President Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncement on Wednesday in Marawi City where he likened the setup to a co-ownership.
“The President just wanted to explain that joint exploration and exploitation will be undertaken by both Philippine and Chinese nationals,” Roque said.
“Now having said that, you know, ownership is not material here because really the areas that may be subjected to joint development is EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone — where we only exercise sovereign rights. So let’s not talk about ownership, because sovereign rights is different from title,” he added.
Roque disagreed with the view of Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio that any joint development agreement with another country to exploit areas within Manila’s EEZ is unconstitutional, saying the high court itself settled the matter in its 2004 decision on the constitutionality of the Philippine Mining Law (Republic Act 7942).
“The existing jurisprudence is ‘yes,’ we can enter into joint exploration and joint exploitation with foreign entities provided that it complies with the Constitution among others, it be pursuant to a written agreement signed by the President and submitted to Congress,” he said.
China claims most of the South China Sea, a key route in global trade and a resource-rich territory whose parts are subject to competing claims with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Philippines and China last month agreed to set up a special panel to work out how they can jointly explore oil and gas in part of the South China Sea that both sides lay claim without having to address the touchy issue of sovereignty.
Pursuing a joint project would be extremely complex and sensitive, as sharing oil and gas reserves could be seen as endorsing other countries’ claims.
Roque maintained that any joint exploration with China won’t require the Philippines to recognize Beijing’s sovereign rights in the disputed areas.
“Certainly not. Joint exploration is exactly what it is – it’s a practical solution for the Filipinos to utilize natural resources without having to deal with the contentious conflicting claims to territories,” he said.
As for former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay’s claim that Duterte’s stance is an example of culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust, Roque said Hilbay is “free” to file an impeachment complaint against the President.
Congress has been moving heaven & earth (hell as well, actually) to find & invent grounds to impeach a Chief Justice.
Here's a clear example of culpable violation of the Constitution & betrayal of public trust.
The West Phil Sea is exclusively ours. He's giving it away. https://t.co/2pqiC1CyHZ
— florin hilbay (@fthilbay) February 28, 2018
“How can it be betrayal of public trust when the Supreme Court itself has said it can be done. I believe that former Solicitor [General] Hilbay maybe in the same opinion as Justice Carpio but they are in the minority. The jurisprudence again in La Bugal [La Bugal-B’Laan Tribal Association v. Ramos]: joint exploration, exploitation is allowed,” Roque said.
In July 2016, the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration delivered a sweeping victory to the Philippines when it declared as illegal China’s claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.
It also declared that Beijing violated the rights of Filipinos, who were blocked by Chinese Coast Guard from fishing in the disputed Scarborough Shoal off Zambales.
Duterte, however, set aside the ruling to avoid confrontation with China. He vowed to raise it at the right time during his presidency.