December 14, 2022
MANILA – Earlier this month, President Marcos Jr. made an important statement that turned years of established Philippine foreign policy on its head. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
According to the Chief Executive, the Philippines will now be going it alone and bypass the deadlocked government-to-government talks with China in determining how best to explore for energy resources in the West Philippine Sea—an area which China claims as its own despite established international law and rulings.
“That’s a big thing for us, that is why we need to fight [for what is ours] and take advantage if there really is oil there,” Mr. Marcos said on Dec. 1. “That’s the roadblock, it is hard to see how we can resolve that. I think there might be other ways so it does not have to be G-to-G (government-to-government).”
For years, the country has sought an acceptable state-to-state solution to the issue, only to be rebuffed by China, which insists that talks be done on its terms using its laws. This situation was clearly unacceptable, and Mr. Marcos’ decision to abandon this route altogether is an important milestone. After all, if China cannot be counted on to respect international law, what chance do we have of getting them to recognize Philippine law?
The time has come for the country to ditch the previous administration’s servile stance toward the Asian giant to our northwest, especially with reports now emerging that ships of the Chinese militia have become more aggressive in recent months and have positioned themselves increasingly closer to Palawan.
The timing couldn’t be better as this also comes shortly after the United States, through its Vice President Kamala Harris, reaffirmed the superpower’s solid commitment to upholding the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty in no uncertain terms.
One very concrete way of beginning this pushback is for the President to order the Philippine Navy to conduct joint freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) in the international waters that China wrongfully claims as its own.
The US Navy conducts these so-called Fonops regularly by sailing their warships within 12 nautical miles of these artificial Chinese islands, which the Asian superpower wrongly claims is part of its territory. And despite repeated radio warnings and threats from the Chinese military, powerful and intimidating US Navy vessels just ignore them and sail right through. During former president Rodrigo Duterte’s term, the Navy refrained from joining these Fonops in order not to offend China.
There is nothing stopping the Philippine Navy from sailing one of its newer frigates right behind a US Navy destroyer right past these illegal Chinese installations. These joint Fonops should be done regularly, at first, with ships of the US fleet providing operational cover for Philippine vessels, then eventually—once our navy’s men and women have gained enough confidence and skill—for Philippine-flagged military vessels to do it alone.
Only when we see our military assets comfortable sailing these disputed waters, unchallenged and unimpeded, will the private sector be confident enough to sail civilian exploration vessels in these areas. And only then will international bankers be comfortable lending the billions of dollars needed to finance these undertakings that will ultimately lead to greater energy security for the country.
The truth of the matter is that whatever oil and gas resources anyone will find in the West Philippine Sea will not be enough to solve the current energy woes being experienced by the country. It takes many years and billions upon billions of dollars in capital expenditure for such reserves to be extracted from the bottom of the sea, transported to refineries, and converted into fuel that can be used to light homes, power industries, or fuel cars.
Our current energy woes will be over long before any progress is made on the West Philippine Sea oil and gas fields, so no one should be under the illusion that Mr. Marcos’ pronouncement on exploration today will yield immediate dividends.
But it is a good and important start, and the work toward greater Philippine energy independence starts with his words. But more importantly, it can only gain impetus if those words are translated into official policy, which the rest of the government will implement.
Indeed, it is often said in ownership disputes that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” The Philippines needs to start reasserting its rights over the West Philippine Sea. For that to happen, the Philippines has to, slowly but surely, expand its presence in the areas it claims as its own. We have to push back against China’s possession of these areas which, for far too long, had been challenged only feebly and meekly or, worse, had gone unchallenged altogether.
Mr. Marcos has taken the important first step of making a verbal commitment to explore the disputed waters for energy resources. He must now follow up on these words with resolute action. It is the right thing to do. And it is long overdue.