Monday, March 28, 2011

And Now the Aftershocks

And Now the Aftershocks
By Erick San Juan

It was in March 2009 when former President Gloria Arroyo signed the controversial Republic Act No. 9522 (or the Philippine Archipelagic Baselines Law) in compliance with the May 2009 deadline of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) then.

It was a very complicated matter as it is controversial given the fact that our country is one of the claimants on the disputed area on the South China Sea. Therefore drawing the baseline or the territorial extent of the Philippines was not that easy. It was even reported back then that China expressed its opposition to the House Bill defining our boundaries through a note sent to the chairman of the House committee on foreign affairs. Under HB 3216, the Philippines’ archipelagic baseline would include the Kalayaan Island Group and the Scarborough Shoal which are also being claimed by other countries aside from China.

“Rep. Antonio Cuenco (Lakas, Cebu) said Beijing expressed its objection to House Bill 3216 in a “note” to the Philippine embassy in Beijing last December.”

“China is shocked by and gravely concerned with this negative development. We request the clarification from the Philippine side,” said the two-page letter which was faxed to Cuenco’s office by Philippine Ambassador, Sonia Brady.

The unsigned note reiterated that China “has undisputable sovereignty over Nansha islands (Kalayaan Group of Islands) including Scarborough Shoal and its adjacent waters.”

Now we are feeling the aftershock of the past administration’s foreign policy with regard to the extent of our territorial waters.

The recent incident at the Reed Bank, a disputed area west of Palawan province where a reported Chinese Navy patrol boats harassed a Philippine-sanctioned oil exploration vessel has made us wonder – why is China so aggressive in asserting its claim in this part of the South China Sea?

There were other oil explorations in the past we had conducted in the area and we didn’t hear any protests much about interference from China as well as other claimants. And added to this, in 2002, China, the Philippines and the rest of ASEAN members (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) signed an accord for the peaceful resolution of competing territorial claims and to freeze any steps that could spark fighting. Meaning the so called “harassment” was really out of tune.

Then, a couple of days ago China warned against any oil exploration without its consent in waters it claims in the South China Sea after the Philippines announced plans for possible drilling after which the Department of Energy (DOE) and the UK-based Forum Energy had completed a seismic survey for the Reed Bank, near the disputed Spratly Islands.

It was very clear that the Reed bank is about 80 nautical miles from mainland Palawan and within our 200 nautical miles economic zone. It is still a part of our continental shelf and physical territory which is in accordance with the law of the sea. Translation – RP has every right to explore (and if there is oil, to drill) this area without violating any country’s sovereignty.

Although speculations still loom as to what has transpired between the Arroyo government and Beijing before which somehow explains the reaction of China on the Reed Bank survey. The GMA administration signed 67 bilateral agreements with Beijing and to include here was the very controversial Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) conducted by RP, China and was later joined in by Vietnam within the waters off Palawan.

If there is any truth in such speculations that Mrs. Arroyo had a “deal” with Beijing, what is happening now could be the aftershock of this executive agreement. We have to remember that Beijing praised Mrs. Arroyo as “a good leader” and that she has shown "she is in control." based on the leaked documents courtesy of Wikileaks. In control of what? Just asking.

The present administration should address this issue with cooler head as not to give way to some foreign friends’ advise that might spark a gloom scenario in the process. Although PNoy must stand firm and assert the country’s right over its territory no matter what but with a huge dose of diplomacy.

Now that we are in a very tight situation with China when it concerns our fellowmen to be executed on Wednesday, there is no room for more confrontation on the issue of the Reed Bank. We must be vigilant and pray hard that we will resolve this matter peacefully.

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