The Philippines may have found the apt legal formula for settling its territorial dispute with China when both countries entered into an agreement to search for gas and oil in the West Philippine Sea through “service contracts,” acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio said on Sunday.
Carpio, a leading voice in the country’s fight for sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea — waters within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the heavily disputed South China Sea — sought to ease critics’ fears, saying the Philippines was “safe” in signing the memorandum of understanding (MOU) during last week’s visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Manila because it was compliant with the 1987 Constitution.
Moreover, Carpio said the MOU did not undermine Manila’s historic triumph in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which in 2016 invalidated China’s claim to nearly the entire South China Sea and recognized the Philippines’ sovereign right to fish and explore resources in the West Philippine Sea.
“The MOU that was signed was an agreement to negotiate a cooperation agreement on the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas in maritime areas to be agreed upon,” Carpio said in a text message to the Inquirer.
“If China agrees to cooperate through Philippine service contractors, then we have found the formula for finally settling the maritime dispute with China, a formula that is consistent with the Philippine Constitution and with the arbitral ruling,” he said.
The agreement, he added, could be a “template” for other claimants in the South China Sea to adopt in peacefully resolving their rival claims in the strategic waterway.
“It is something that Vietnam and other claimant-states will also find acceptable,” he said.