South China Sea: Philippines to explore oil-rich waters amid China tension: ‘it’s quite urgent that we start now’

South China Sea: Philippines to explore oil-rich waters amid China tension: ‘it’s quite urgent that we start now’

The Philippines is building defence alliances with the US and other security partners to help pave the way for resource exploration in the oil-and-gas-rich South China Sea, the nation’s top defence official said, amid heightened tensions with Beijing.

“I really do think it’s quite urgent that we start now,” Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jnr said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Wednesday in his office in Manila. While he declined to provide details, Teodoro, 59, said that resource exploration is “part of the package” of the Philippines’ strategy in fighting for its territory.

His comments suggest that energy exploration could well be the next flashpoint in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where Beijing has laid a sweeping claim opposed by countries including the Philippines and rejected by an international tribunal in 2016. The Philippines, which imports almost all its fuel requirements, has been trying to start energy exploration in its territorial waters as a key local gas field nears depletion.

Philippines says it’s not provoking conflict, accuses China of ‘dangerous’ moves

That bid had been largely foiled by the maritime dispute with China, which routinely deploys ships in the contested waters. Beijing’s agenda in the South China Sea may also be spurred by energy interests, according to Teodoro.

“This could mean that they really want total domination and control over everything from free passage to resources, or they want to bear hug the Philippines to make them the sole joint venture partner in the exploration or exploitation of resources in this area,” Teodoro said.

“Their legal position is untenable and has been rejected by the whole world,” he said.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr had lately stepped up a push to end the deadlock in negotiations in South China Sea resource exploration, almost a year since he met Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and agreed to jointly pursue discussions.

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A Philippine supply boat sails near a Chinese Coast Guard ship during a resupply mission for Filipino troops stationed at a grounded warship in the South China Sea, on October 4, 2023. Photo: Reuters

Since that January 2023 meeting in Beijing, relations between the two neighbours have become rocky, marked by increasingly dangerous encounters at the sea.

The Philippines will not allow any joint exploration that doesn’t recognise the nation’s right to exclusively exploit these resources, the defence chief said.

“Our role really is to secure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Philippines and to protect as much as we can the peaceful and unimpeded exploitation by Filipinos and legally allowable entities,” said Teodoro, a lawyer by training and a one-time presidential contender.

In the face of a “more aggressive” China, the Southeast Asian nation is also planning “more robust” military activities with the US and its allies, Teodoro said, describing his nation’s alliance with America as “extremely strong.” In early 2023, the Philippines agreed to expand American access to military bases near Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Marcos shrugs off China’s warning, says Philippines will assert sea rights

The Philippines is also expanding ties with “other allies and like-minded countries” including Australia, Japan, the UK and Canada. As the US heads into a crucial election in November, Teodoro hopes that Washington’s defence strategy in the Indo-Pacific will not waver.

“A lot has been invested already on both sides,” he said, referring to the US and Philippine engagements. Ensuring security in the Indo-Pacific and rights of passage in the vital trade route benefits not only the US and its allies but the entire global economy, according to the defence minister.

Tensions escalated in recent months as Philippines and Chinese ships faced off in the contested waters. Teodoro said that what worries him the most about the dispute is “the possibility of a miscalculation or a conflict.”

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“You’re dealing with a country without any openness, with opaqueness, with unpredictability, with no external indicators to show what its next move will be,” he said of China. As a result, countries like the Philippines have to be prepared all the time, which Teodoro said has kept him busy “hardening and building up our alliances” in line with Marcos’s foreign policy stance.

Deeper US-Philippines defence ties have drawn criticism from China, with its top diplomat warning Manila last month against colluding with “malicious external forces.”

China is hoping to meet halfway with the Philippines, Beijing’s envoy to Manila Huang Xilian separately said at an event late on Wednesday in Manila. Foreign affairs officials from both countries also met in Shanghai on Wednesday and agreed to better manage the South China Sea dispute.

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