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MANILA, Philippines – Saying no country will put another’s interest ahead of its own, the chair of the Senate defense committee said Monday the Philippines should deal bilaterally with China on a possible joint exploration of oil and gas resources, adding that bringing in a third party prematurely might only complicate matters.
Beyond simply being locked in a standoff with Beijing over the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and involving other allies in the row that began April over fishing rights, Manila might better consider focusing on having bilateral talks with its giant Asian neighbor to jointly explore resources in areas claimed by both, said Sen. Panfilo Lacson as he guested at the Kapihan forum at the Diamond Hotel.
Lacson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Defense and Security, stressed it is inevitable for the Philippines to scout for a foreign partner, with both the financial muscle and technical expertise, to help it explore the “massive resources” beneath the West Philippine Sea.
“We will keep looking for a foreign partner there. It may hold the fourth biggest source of natural gas. And we know that where there’s natural gas often there’s oil too. And the marine resources are very rich,” said Lacson, speaking mostly in Filipino.
His view is seen to buttress the advocacy of Filipino businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan, whose Philex Petroleum is lead player in a consortium that won a service contract to explore in the Recto Bank area off Palawan, for a possible partnership with China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC).
President Benigno Aquino III had said he saw no sovereignty issues involved in case the Forum Energy group brings in a Chinese partner, since they have clearly guaranteed that any venture will begin with an agreement that Philippine laws will govern it.
Pangilinan, however, had also stressed that if the Chinese side balk at such sovereignty issue, his group won’t hesitate to draw the line and look for another partner.
Lacson said he dined recently with Beijing’s ambassador to Manila, and got the signal that China preferred bilateral negotiations with the Philippines on any joint exploration of resources: “baka pwedeng tayo na lang dalawa mag-usap, huwag tayo mag-involve ng ibang countries dahil gugulo ang usapan; lalong hindi natin ma-resolve [let’s not involve third parties in the meantime, because that might mess up the talks; the more we cannot resolve issues].”
Each country “that we involve in these talks will have its own na interest,” Lacson stressed, adding: “Do you think the US will work [for the] interest of the Philippines ahead of its own interest? No way. In like manner, we’ll be very frank in saying we will advance our national interest first before that of another. And no country will advance the interest of another country ahead or on top of their own interests. So bringing in a third or fourth country, or 10 more countries, will not do us any good.”
Failed meeting in Cambodia
Asked to comment on the failure of a recent ASEAN forum to issue a communiqué on the South China Sea issue, Lacson said that as chairman of the Senate defense committee he would rather endorse bilateral discussions with Beijing.
He added: “I think it’s possible to temporarily set aside talks of sovereignty, or ownership. I believe China will agree to talks on [purely] economic considerations. Nauwi na lang tayo sa usapang pride, usapang pulitikal, international politics and all, so nagkaroon ng standoff [We just got dragged into issues of national pride, geopolitics, and so forth, that’s why a standoff ensued].”
It is better he said, for the Philippines to “directly talk one on one with China instead of bringing in the US.”
Invoking the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in the current row “should be a matter of last resort” when Philippine vessels come under attack, he added.
“In the meantime, [let’s strengthen our economy] by talking directly with China. I think they are reasonable enough to see the light in our request. This has been their attitude ever since,” the senator said.