Joint exploration of West PH Sea pushed anew

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Gregorio Honasan has joined calls for a joint exploration of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), citing the controversial arrangement adopted during the time of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The chair of the Senate committee on national defense and security said it is time for Philippine policy makers to "modernize their thinking" and consider joint exploration of the disputed sea, he told Rappler in an interview after the Senate held an executive session to get a security briefing on Wednesday, December 14.

"The first thing we should modernize is our way of thinking. It goes beyond airplanes and ships...Be imaginative and out of the box," the retired military officer said.

This can be done, he said, through "joint exploration to benefit all the claimants while the arbitral ruling is being resolved."

President Rodrigo Duterte has made pronouncements during the campaign that he is open to the joint exploration of the West Philippine Sea, arguing that the Philippines should not insist on ownership at the outset.

He maintained this position even after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea.

The joint exploration proposal was not tackled during Duterte's state visit to China in October and has not been discussed since. In what appears to be a shift in his tone, Duterte back then said he will consult Congress on how to best exploit the country's resources in the West Philippine Sea.

Better than JMSU?

Honasan said the joint exploration agreement agreement may be patterned after the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU), a tripartite agreement between the Philippines, China, and Vietnam that was adopted by the Arroyo administration.

"From talking about ownership, we will probably consider joint exploration. We have a model for that – not to adopt it en toto but as confidence building measure," Honasan said.

"We will examine that (JMSU) again as a basis  for considering that option....We will look at it, not adopt it," Honasan added.

He said a new agreement on joint exploration should be based on "mutal respect and mutual benefit and based on our national interest."

Arroyo's critics alleged that the then chief executive was liable for treason over the JMSU because about 80% of the coverage of joint exploration is inside the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. 

The JMSU – the first phase of the joint exploration – lapsed on June 30, 2008, and was not renewed by the Arroyo government amid criticism. Bayan Muna filed a petition before the Supreme Court in 2008, asking it to void the JMSU.

Bayan Muna asked the High Court to rule on its petition in 2014, arguing that the agreement is "capable of repetition" if not voided. It reiterated a Court ruling on its petition in July 2016, following the Philippines' victory over China in its sea dispute. 

President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy on West Philippine Sea is a stark contrast from the previous Aquino administration, which filed a historic arbitration case against China’s sweeping claims in the disputed seas. (READ: Aquino: The president who brought China to court)

Duterte now wants warmer ties with China, prompting him to end joint patrols between the Philippine and US militaries.

"It is the policy of our President that all of our actions should not be provocative of any other country. Our objective is instead of antagonizing anyone, we would  like to develop harmony in the region," said Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna, the second highest official at the Department of National Defense. 

Back to internal security focus

Luna said the modernization efforts of the Philippine military will continue to develop a "fully credible defense force."

"The most important is the Air Force. Next is the Navy. And then the Army," Luna said.

But internal security problems keep diverting the military's focus. The military has shifted back its focus to counter-terrorism efforts, particularly against the Abu Sayyaf Group operating in Sulu and Basilan  and the Maute Group in Lanao del Sur. These two groups have pledged allegiance to the foreign terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS).

"As of now we are still at the stage that we are still dealing with internal security problems. A lot of priorities to go into the Army. But in the future, we should develop the Air Force and the Navy because we are a littoral nation," said Luna. 

Honasan said the Senate remains committed to the modernization of the Philippine military, but added  that there is a need to audit the performance of the military before it decides which capabilities it should acquire. –