The Philippines will resume oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, in a move that will prove how willing the country and Beijing are to compromise on rival maritime claims and U.S. determination to support Manila.
“We are confident that China will abide by our sovereign decision,” Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said Friday on the move to end a six-year moratorium on exploration for disputed waters.
The administration of former President Benigno Aquino III suspended exploration and drilling activities in the disputed sea in 2014 amid tensions with China.
A UN-backed arbitration tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and against the “nine lines” under which China claims almost the entire South China Sea in 2016.
But Rodrigo Duterte, Mr Aquino’s successor, aligned the Philippines more closely with China at the expense of the United States, his country’s traditional ally. In 2018, the Philippines signed a memorandum of joint exploration with China. But the proposed cooperation has not materialized.
The U.S., meanwhile, has stepped up its support for Manila, pledging to support the country against Chinese harassment in waters where the UN tribunal has ruled that Beijing’s claims were illegal.
Michael Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, said in July: “We are making it clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources in much of the South China Sea are completely illegal, as is its harassment campaign. to control them. “
Mr Pompeo added that China could not claim maritime claims against the Philippines in areas the court found to be located in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone or on its continental shelf.
This applies to projects that Mr. Duterte has allowed to resume. Forum, a UK-backed company in the Philippines, holds a contract to explore near Reed Bank, an area which is thought to be rich in oil and gas but which the country has not been able to exploit due to of harassment by Chinese ships. PXP, a Hong Kong-listed company controlled by Filipino businessman Manuel Pangilinan and state-owned Philippine Petroleum Company hold the other two service contracts allowed to resume.
Mr Cusi said the Philippines did not notify China before announcing its decision, but expressed confidence that Forum Energy and Beijing-owned China Offshore Oil Corp would speed up talks on co-operation.
China said last week that it hoped the bilateral consensus on joint resource development in the South China Sea was still on track. “I hope and believe that the two sides will meet each other halfway, promote joint development and continue to make positive progress,” said Zhao Lijian, foreign ministry spokesman.
Manila’s decision comes after a gas reservoir in Malampaya, in which the Philippines relies heavily on its energy needs, is expected to be completed by 2030.
“A number of research companies that have been involved in the blocks had called for the moratorium to be lifted,” said Andrew Harwood, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy. “The Malampaya project is entering the final stages of its life cycle, so as the economy grows, the Philippines is in dire need of gas resources.”
A U.S. diplomat in Southeast Asia called Manila’s decision an “encouraging sign” and said Mr Duterte’s government may have felt encouraged to secure stronger support from Washington.
But a leading analyst based in the Philippines said the exploration could also be seen as a victory for Beijing.
“The Philippines is essentially caught between the time bomb of a leaking Malampaya and a Chinese shotgun to negotiate a joint development deal,” said Richard Heydarian, a political analyst and author of a book about Mr Duterte. “Just talking is a diplomatic coup for China.”
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