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Slithering policy

March 08, 2008 23:55:00
Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE PRESIDENT OF THE PHILIPPINES, AS HEAD of state and government, has the responsibility of conducting foreign policy. However, this policy is bound by constitutional limits. Among them are: our foreign policy must be independent; and in relation with other states, the paramount consideration of our foreign policy must be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.

Also, as a rule, the president is bound by the national policy of full public disclosure of all government transactions involving public interest. And all policies must conform to the national policy of developing a self-reliant and independent national economy effectively controlled by Filipinos.

A question of growing concern to Filipinos today is this: Has the Arroyo administration taken steps not just to put on hold but also to effectively relinquish the Philippine claim on part of the Spratlys?

In 2004 an agreement between the Philippines and China—or to be precise, between two state-owned corporations—to undertake a seismic exploration of disputed areas in the South China Sea was signed.

Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, quizzed about the deal (because Vietnam, another Spratlys claimant, objected to it), said “[T]here was no agreement that touched on petroleum, oil or exploration.” He was technically correct but really being sparse with the truth. The three-year, $7-million seismic project was the prelude to serious oil exploration; it was a preliminary survey to identify areas that could be zeroed in for their promising formations. As we reported in 2005, the seismic work programs involved setting off explosions to monitor the shock waves for pockets of oil and gas. Prospecting for oil and gas, in other words.

Back in 1990, Franklin Drilon, as justice secretary then, issued a memorandum saying that seismic exploration and a Memorandum of Understanding for that purpose, were constitutionally sound. He should be asked by the Senate whether an MOU is the same thing as a formal contract signed by two state-owned companies. Could it be that the difference between an MOU and a formal contract is what later caused Merceditas Gutierrez to fret that the deal might be grounds for an impeachment?

The Drilon memorandum called a seismic study “pre-exploration activities.” This, to our mind, is the key phrase. For the study opens the door to actual exploration which, in turn, would lead to the exploitation of resources. Thus the constitutional questions would become central, not at the point of the signing of the seismic study contract, but after its conclusion.

What would come next? On that point the administration has been ominously silent.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago ventured an opinion in 2005. She said, “I think the agreement is … that the issue of ownership has been sidestepped and that the parties will focus instead on the revenue-sharing arrangement or profit-sharing arrangement concerning the natural resources of the Spratly islands.” Which only serves to underline the real issue at hand: the seismic deal is the prelude to the exploitation of resources in a territory we’ve claimed.

Reporters pursuing this story are exploring the possibility that the Philippines is poised to give up the active exploitation of whatever resources may be discovered in the Spratlys, in exchange for cash and loans from the Chinese government. The big-ticket deals the Arroyo administration has signed with China would seem to enhance this perception. The generosity of the Chinese, the whole region knows, is premised on cash being a means to increase Chinese influence. Aid and assistance is therefore a diplomatic tool to extend Chinese influence in a region nervous over projections of Chinese armed might. The cornucopia of Chinese loans and aid, however, has become corrupted—by allegations of Filipino greed.

The Palace’s reaction to questions over its Spratlys policy has been damning. With slithering slyness, the Palace hissed that the seismic exploration contract is available online, so what was hidden? Nothing was hidden, as far as Newsbreak, which published the contract, is concerned. But this is different from the government not publishing the contract, whether online or in the moribund Official Gazette.

A Palace parsimonious with information and unwilling to spell out, in unambiguous terms, its Spratlys policy, deserves serious investigation.

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