Teodoro Locsin, the outgoing foreign minister of the Philippines, yesterday announced that Manila had terminated negotiations over joint energy exploration between his country and China in the South China Sea, dealing a blow to Beijing’s strategy in the region.
The Philippines and China have a number of unresolved maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but nonetheless pledged to move ahead with joint oil and gas exploration in 2018.
In a speech marking the 124th anniversary of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, Locsin said that President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered the talks ended due to constitutional constraints and concerns about Philippine sovereignty.
“The President has spoken. I carried out his instructions to the letter. Oil and gas discussions are terminated completely. Nothing is spending. Everything is over,” Locsin said in his speech, according to local media reports.
“We got as far as it is constitutionally possible to go, Locsin said in his speech. “One step forward from where we stood on the edge of the abyss is a drop into constitutional crisis.” He said that the Philippines wished to develop these resources, but “not at the price of sovereignty. Not even a particle of it.”
For years the Philippines has struggled to find foreign partners to help exploit the offshore energy reserves that lie within the West Philippine Sea, as Manila refers to its areas of the South China Sea, in large part due to the unresolved disputes in these regions. The Philippines has lodged more than 300 diplomatic protests with Beijing over the incursion of Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels into its EEZ, most recently.
However, in the context of its warming relations with China, Duterte’s administration in November 2018 signed an MoU with China in which both countries pledged to cooperate in the exploration of oil and gas deposits lying within Manila’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), despite them having active disputes in these areas.
The joint exploration project involved both disputed waters within the Philippines’ EEZ and “undisputed” waters belonging to the Philippines. In October 2020, Duterte also announced the lifting of a six-year moratorium on oil and natural gas exploration at Reed Bank, which had been in place since 2014.
Duterte’s decision to enter into joint exploration talks with China was widely criticized for ignoring the 2016 arbitral ruling that found the Philippines enjoyed sovereign rights to exploit energy reserves inside its 200-mile EEZ – a ruling that was dismissed by Beijing, and which Duterte once likened to a piece of paper
According to these critics, China’s Beijing’s professed goal of “shelving differences and seeking joint development” in the South China Sea was essentially its way of “buying” the Philippines’ de facto acquiescence to its expansive maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s move effectively relieves the incoming administration led by President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of making a decision on continuing the talks with China over joint exploration.
So far, the signs of Marcos’ possible approach to the South China Sea have been mixed. During the campaign for the May 9 presidential election, Marcos said that if elected, he would follow Duterte in setting aside the 2016 arbitral ruling, and negotiate directly with Beijing on the disputes. With the option of war something that “must be dismissed outright,” Marcos told an interviewer that “bilateral agreement is what we are left with.”
After his landslide election victory, however, he said that he would uphold the 2016 ruling, pledging not to allow “a single millimeter of our maritime coastal rights to be trampled upon.” Given Duterte’s frequent flip-flops on exactly these issues, it remains to be seen how Manila’s South China Sea policy washes out once Marcos takes office on June 30 – but thanks to Duterte’s parting gift to Beijing, it will be able to carve its policy from a relatively blank slate.
“It remains with the new administration to protect our sovereignty all the way to the while but now I can rest,” Locsin said. “Surrender of any portion of Philippine sovereignty is not an option. Not for love. Not for money.”