WPS and the new administration

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The country faces two huge problems arising from the Ukraine conflict; the global oil shortage and a potential food shortage. Then, there’s the problem of dwindling fishery resources because of the inability of Filipino fishermen to exploit the marine resources in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). Notwithstanding our country’s victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which affirms the Philippines’ full entitlement to its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), our fishermen are helpless amidst harassment by the China coast guard right smack within the country’s 200-nautical-mile EEZ.

It should be a welcome consolation, nay, assurance, for the nation that the new President has announced that he would use the landmark arbitral ruling to protect the integrity of Philippine sovereignty on the heels of the diffident attitude exhibited by the previous administration. To be fair, the Duterte administration scuttled the memorandum of agreement with China on the joint oil exploration in the WPS in his final days in office. Understandably, his administration could not convince China to acknowledge the Philippines’ exclusive rights over the WPS.

To the credit of former foreign affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., the country was unflinching in not yielding to China the Philippines’ maritime entitlements in the WPS, which resulted in the scuttling of the joint exploration agreement. China is, again, dangling the same missed opportunity before the new administration. Hopefully, the new administration would not fall for it and possibly deprive the country of another six years without any exploration in the Philippine EEZ.

China’s disputed claims also affect the country’s mass transport system, which now includes at least two subways in the metropolis. Mass transport systems are heavily dependent on electricity, whose rates are expected to spike with the rise in oil prices. Our mass transport systems should be run on electricity generated by natural gas, which is vastly abundant in the WPS. Natural, gas-operated buses could also be used in the Edsa carousel route and other major thoroughfares, which would significantly bring down transport fares.

However, service contractors authorized to undertake gas explorations within the Philippine EEZ cannot operate because of purported security concerns posed by China’s nine-dash-line claim over the entire breadth of the South China Sea, including the WPS. Thus, Japan’s offer to assist the Philippines in patrolling the WPS should be another welcome development for the new administration. The offer could even usher in a new long-term economic partnership between Japan and the Philippines in terms of access to modern fishery vessels and apparatus that Filipino fishermen sorely need, and perhaps a joint exploration agreement within our EEZ.

The joint exploration with China now out of the question, it is high time for the new administration to look for other potential international partners in exploiting the vast potential oil and gas reserves in the Philippine EEZ. A tripartite joint exploration with the United States and Japan might be a feasible strategy to take. The US has the deep sea technology to undertake the exploration and the military wherewithal to protect it, while Japan can bankroll the venture and, thus, justify its offer of joint patrol in the WPS. Such tripartite exploration could usher the country into a new era of economic development, amidst the global oil shortage. The new administration should seize this opportunity that its predecessor had missed out on.

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Frank E. Lobrigo is a retired judge of the regional trial court. Before joining the bench, he practiced law for 20 years.

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