'Binay's joint venture with China must be corruption-free'

MANILA, Philippines – Vice President Jejomar Binay wants a joint venture with China to explore oil and gas in the South China Sea but a maritime law expert said any deal must be free of corruption. 

Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines College of Law told Rappler that if the next president decides to pursue joint development, he or she must learn from the mistakes of the Arroyo administration. 

The assistant professor cited the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) that former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's government entered into with China and Vietnam in 2005. (READ: Why China prefers Arroyo over Aquino)

“Our experience so far with a joint development in the South China Sea is the JMSU, which has been tainted with corruption allegations. That's really unfortunate and because of that, that set the current administration against any kind of joint development,” Batongbacal said on Rappler Talk on Thursday, July 9. 

Watch the full interview here:

Binay drew controversy for his stand on China, particularly his line, “China has money. We need capital.” The opposition standard-bearer, Binay is the subject of various graft investigations for alleged overpriced infrastructure projects he approved as Makati mayor.

Binay's stand on China was a departure from the Aquino administration's refusal to negotiate with Beijing to resolve the maritime dispute. Under President Benigno Aquino III, a historic arbitration case became the primary track to address the row. 

Batongbacal said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) actually promotes joint development of resources in disputed areas. 

“This is because of the recognition that ocean resources are different from land resources. These are shared resources so what you do in one part of the ocean could affect another part of it. That's why shared management, shared development makes sense,” he said. 

Batongbacal said the problem is that in the South China Sea, competing territorial claims overshadow the idea of sharing resources. 

The director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea added that the Philippines must not rule out joint development but ensure that it is done with fairness and transparency. 

“The big challenge will be to make sure any kind of arrangement will be fair and equitable to the parties concerned, especially to us, because we are the weaker, smaller party, and yet we have a greater need for those resources.”

'PH needs long-term China policy' 

China is emerging as a key issue in the 2016 elections. The arbitration case and Beijing's massive land reclamation make the elections crucial in determining the future of Manila's China policy.

The next president will succeed two leaders with opposing China policies: Arroyo who was friendly with Beijing but stirred controversy for graft-tainted deals with Chinese firms, and Aquino who angered China with the arbitration case and strong rhetoric. (READ: China hits back at PH: You've changed)

One of the questionable deals under Arroyo was the JMSU. A 2006 Newsbreak report tied the agreement in the Spratly Islands with multi-billion-dollar infrastructure and economic deals the Philippines supposedly got as concessions. Done in secret, the deal also faced questions of constitutionality.

Up to 80% of the JMSU site was within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, where Manila has the exclusive right to explore and exploit resources like fish, oil, and gas.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said that the joint development of the Spratlys is problematic as it will violate the Philippine Constitution. 

“China’s offer of joint development in the Spratlys has one pre-condition – that the other state concedes to China indisputable sovereignty over the Spratlys….Any President who concedes sovereignty over the [Spratlys] to China culpably violates the Constitution and commits an impeachable act,” Carpio said in an April lecture.

Whether or not the next president pursues joint development, the Philippines has to come up with a consistent, long-term policy on China. 

Batongbacal compared Philippine foreign policy that changes from one administration to the next, to China's vision of its relations with the world. 

“Look at their plan to equal America's stature economically and militarily. It's a 100-year plan and they actually have a schedule up to 2049. That's how long-term they plan. In terms of action, we could expect a similar spread. Their leadership changes are every 10 years so it really takes a long time for policies to change,” he said. 

In contrast, the lawyer said Philippine leaders fail to come up with a coordinated China policy. 

“Given our politics, we're still quite away from it. In fact, I'm with a group of academics who feel we are still not at the point where we have long-term strategies, careful deliberate actions that can cross beyond the changes in the administration.”  

US STANCE. Senator Grace Poe says the Philippines cannot rely on the US to defend it in its maritime dispute against China. File photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

US STANCE. Senator Grace Poe says the Philippines cannot rely on the US to defend it in its maritime dispute against China.

File photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

'Stop overreliance on US'  

Senator Grace Poe, the front-runner in 2016 presidential surveys, has said that the Philippines should not rely on its long-time ally, the United States, to defend it in the dispute. 

“I don't think the US would be in the position to do that because they have to be able to weigh in also on what their citizens want, or what to do for their country," Poe said in a forum in June.

Batongbacal said Poe's stance was sensible because the Philippines must learn to see where its interests align and diverge with the international community. 

The Philippines' treaty ally, Washington, is concerned with freedom of navigation but remains neutral on the dispute. 

"One of our long-standing issues has always been an over-reliance on allies on things we should be doing ourselves like building up our military. So hopefully we get away from that kind of attitude from now on and realize allies are only good for some things," said Batongbacal. 

Other Southeast Asian countries also want freedom of navigation in the South China Sea where around half of the world freight cargo passes, and where fishermen source marine resources.

Yet claimant countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have their own interests to protect. 

“We need to review carefully and appreciate where our interests converge. We will see the continuing support of the international community for as long as our position coincides with their interests. Mutual interests, that's how the world works.” – Rappler.com