OF the many issues ruled upon by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, two are of utmost importance to the Philippines – our oil exploration at Recto Bank and fishing by Zambales fishermen at Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc.
There was a finding of destruction of reefs in some islands in the South China Sea, which was most welcomed by the world’s environmentalists. The ruling that the artificial islands built in some of the reefs were not entitled to their own 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) means they cannot be used to claim sovereign rights to exploit natural resources. And the ruling that there is no legal basis for the Nine-Dash Line with which China claims most of the South China Sea upholds freedom of navigation in the entire sea through which commercial vessels of so many countries pass every day.
But it is the Recto Bank and the Scarborough Shoal that concerns us most.
Recto Bank, also known as Reed Bank, is off the west coast of Palawan and east of the northern islands of the Spratlys. A group led by Philex Petroleum was conducting exploration for oil and gas at Recto Bank in 2012 when everything was put on hold by the Department of Energy due to a dispute with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) over exploration rights earlier granted by the previous Arroyo administration.
Chinese naval vessels started appearing in the area in the first year of the Aquino administration and, on orders from the Department of Energy, the Philex group decided to back off. Its offer of an arrangement with CNOOC was turned down and no further exploration activity has been held since then.
In his State-of-the-Nation Address in 2011, President Aquino mentioned the Recto Bank as he announced moves to enhance the nation’s security. He announced the coming of the country’s first Hamilton-class cutter, with more vessels in the future, the acquisition of more helicopters, patrol craft, and weapons. He said: “Now our message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours; setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue.”
It was at this 2011 SONA that he first announced that the government was studying the possibility of elevating the case on the South China Sea to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, “to make certain that all nations involved approach the dispute with calm and forbearance.”
The Scarborough Shoal is a traditional fishing ground of Filipino fishermen just west of Zambales, also well within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. If, at Recto Bank, natural resources of as much as 213 billion barrels of oil and 2 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas are involved, at Scarborough, our concern is simply for the livelihood of small fishermen who have long been fishing in its waters.
After the release of the PCA ruling, our fishermen sought to test the waters to see if they could now resume their fishing there, but they were turned away. To this day, they have not been able to go to their old fishing grounds.
Any day now, former President Fidel V. Ramos will be going to Beijing in a move to see what the two nations can agree on in the wake of the PCA ruling which China has refused to accept. We are confident that the former President, with his stature and the close relations he has developed over the years with China, will be able to find a way to work out some working arrangement with our giant neighbor to the northwest. A return to the old joint-exploration arrangement at Recto Bank would be welcome. Even more so would be the return of our small fishermen to their old fishing grounds at Scarborough or Bajo de Masinloc.