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Lawmakers seek Senate, House probes on Spratlys deal

March 07, 2008 03:52:00
Veronica Uy Maila Ager Dona Pazzibugan Norman Bordadora
INQUIRER.net Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines -- Crying “treason” and “sellout,” lawmakers are seeking separate inquiries into the 2004 agreement between the Philippines and China to undertake a seismic exploration of disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Three senators -- Panfilo Lacson, Jamby Madrigal and Antonio Trillanes IV -- filed separate resolutions calling for an investigation into the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) between the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and wondered whether the Arroyo administration had entered into the agreement in exchange for an $8-billion loan package from China.

They allege that, among other things, the agreement weakens the government's position in its claim over the disputed islands.

Aside from the three countries, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also lay claim to other parts of the island chain believed to be rich in oil reserves and is, in fact, a rich fishing ground.

In the House of Representatives, 14 congressmen, including four allied with the administration, filed a resolution seeking an inquiry to determine whether the agreement resulted in the “sellout” of Philippine sovereignty in exchange for “overpriced loans” to fund controversial projects.

House Resolution No. 496 directs the committees on foreign affairs, national defense and security, and ecology to look into the 2004 JMSU between the Philippines, China and Vietnam, ostensibly intended to map resources in the Spratlys but which critics claim sells out Philippine interests and sovereignty “in exchange for overpriced loans to fund controversial projects like the national broadband [network or NBN] deal, the Northrail and Southrail project[s], among others.”

The resolution, filed by Bayan Muna party-list Representatives Teodoro Casiño and Satur Ocampo, also questioned why the agreement was sealed without Senate ratification.

‘Impeachable offense’

Senate President Manuel Villar Thursday said he was in favor of an inquiry by the upper chamber into the agreement.

Villar said he found it disturbing that the Philippines broke ranks with other ASEAN countries that were also claiming parts of the Spratlys.

“What did China give us so that we would give them such a concession? I believe we should start an investigation. I believe the Spratlys issue is very important, and Malacañang has a lot of explaining to do,” he said.

Villar said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may be impeached if she allowed the joint exploration of resources in the disputed Spratlys Islands with China in exchange for allegedly graft-ridden loans.

“Yes, it's an impeachable offense,” he said when asked.

Compromised claim

Lacson, Madrigal and Trillanes said the Arroyo administration’s move could amount to “treason” because it purportedly compromised the Philippines’ claim to the potentially oil-rich Spratly chain of islands.

“We have to look more deeply into this issue. It is tantamount to a treasonous act,” Lacson said Thursday.

He said the agreement “effectively conceded to China even areas of our own continental shelf, to the detriment of our national territory and security.”

He added that Ms Arroyo went ahead with the signing of the agreement despite the objections of her then chief legal counsel, Merceditas Gutierrez, and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

“The question is: Why? Is it tied to the $8-billion loan package from China?” Lacson said.

Madrigal said the exploration deal appeared to be a “precondition” set by China in exchange for the loan agreements, including the loans for the allegedly irregular National Broadband Network and NorthRail projects.

National patrimony

“This controversial agreement with China for joint exploration of the Spratly islands is clearly unconstitutional and made at the expense of ASEAN political solidarity,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said a Senate inquiry into the deal is timely as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which establishes the bounds of territorial seas, may also be discussed.

He said the tripartite agreement also covers internal seas, “even those adjoining Palawan...Even those that are not under dispute are covered by the deal.”

House Resolution 496 read in part: “[The agreement] is effectively giving away the national patrimony as it actually concedes the exploration and exploitation of natural resources to foreigners.

“[The area of exploration] under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea clearly falls within the archipelagic waters, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines.”

“Considering the nature, scope and possible impact of the subject Agreement that actually involves matters affecting national sovereignty, national patrimony, and national defense and security; the said agreement should have been treated as a treaty or an international agreement which should be subject to the ratification of the Senate under Article VII, Section 21 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution’ instead of being treated as a mere commercial contract,” the resolution read.

The resolution was sponsored by Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez, Anakpawis party-list Rep. Crispin Beltran, Bukidnon Rep. Teofisto Guingona III, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez and Gabriela party-list Rep. Liza Maza -- all with the minority.

The other sponsors were Deputy Majority Leader Crispin Remulla, Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada, Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Villafuerte, Camarines Sur Rep. Felix Alfelor and Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante -- all allied with the administration -- and independents Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. of Makati and Rep. Eduardo Nonato Joson of Nueva Ecija.

‘Preferred mega lender’

Golez had delivered a privilege speech on the Barry Wain article detailing the alleged sellout in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

The alleged corruption surrounding the JMSU was reported by the FEER and some local news outfits.

“Some would say it was a sell-out on the part of the Philippines,” South China Sea expert Mark Valencia was quoted by FEER as saying.

Golez raised concerns over China’s purported growing influence in the Philippines as a “preferred mega lender.”

Villafuerte, during his interpellation of Golez on the floor on Tuesday, moved that former Speaker Jose de Venecia of Pangasinan be investigated as well for having pushed for the deal with China.

But Golez cautioned Villafuerte against the move, saying the issue could be more extensive than it appeared.

In the House plenary and in a news forum Thursday, Golez and Casiño questioned the continued delay in the passage of the bill setting the Philippines’ archipelagic baselines.

They were referring to House Bill 3216, which has been pending on the floor for third and final reading.

Archipelagic bill

Golez expressed concern that with Wain’s article linking the exploration agreement with China with its billions of dollars in loans to the Philippines, the continued non-passage of the archipelagic baselines bill might also be a “sellout” for Chinese financing.

“[The bill] was approved on second reading in December and it is now ... almost three months already. Until now, it has not been presented for third reading,” Golez said at the news forum.

“And there are now rumors swirling ... that an external power is preventing us from approving it on third reading,” he said.

The bill was passed on second reading in December and was among the measures expected to be passed on third reading as soon as Congress resumed its session in January.

Golez said the bill needed to be passed before the middle of 2009 to beat the deadline set by the United Nations for such measures defining countries’ territorial claims.

Remulla said on the floor that the House committee on rules would discuss the bill defining the archipelagic baselines on Tuesday when the committee meets.

DFA objects

Casiño said Siquijor Rep. Orlando Fua, the vice chair of the House committee on foreign affairs, said on the floor on Wednesday that the lower chamber had received a message from the DFA asking that the bill not be passed.

“He said, and this is very revealing, that officials of the [DFA] told Congress not to approve the bill because this runs in conflict with some international agreements that our government entered into,” Casiño said, adding:

“Congressman Fua failed to reveal what these agreements were.”

In a separate statement, Casiño warned President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo that she could be impeached for treason if the agreement indeed compromised the country’s patrimony and sovereignty.

“If that happens, then the next impeachment complaint will most likely cover all the grounds for impeachment, including betrayal of the public trust, culpable violation of the constitution, bribery, high crimes, and treason,” Casiño said.

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