Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. may have spoken too soon when he declared back in October 29 that China was not threatening to go to war with the Philippines over resources in the South China Sea. He said in a tweet, that China did not need the Philippines’ oil and gas reserves in the contested waters.
Barely a week later, Panos Mourdoukoutas, a New York economics professor, contributed an article to Forbes magazine with the startling title, “China wins South China Sea map war against the Philippines” (Forbes, November 2019).
Forbes is of course the highly regarded business magazine that specializes in digging up the net worth and finding and ranking the richest people in the planet, including our very rich compatriots. Forbes does this stuff so well it can now rank and list the richest sportsmen, the richest actors and actresses, and the richest in everything. The fortunes are so fabulous, you get sick reading about them.
With respect to the South China Sea, I was left wondering whether there are several wars that are taking place under the radar in or in connection with the disputed waterway. You can’t just walk away because our national interest is on the line, whether the reported conflict is real or just fantasy.
China not threatening war
China is not threatening to go to war with the Philippines over resources in the South China Sea, Secretary Locsin said on October 29.
In response to Locsin’s tweet, British journalist Bill Hayton questioned the remarks of Locsin that China is “the only one offering help” to develop the country’s resources in the South China Sea.
“The only one? Shell and Chevron are already doing it. PRC is threatening war to prevent the Philippines developing its own resources,” Hayton tweeted Locsin.
Locsin responded to Hayton Tuesday morning and pointed out that the Malampaya natural gas field, operated by Shell Philippines Exploration with partners Chevron Malampaya and Philippine National Oil Co. Exploration Corp. is running out.
“Shell and Chevron’s Malampaya is running out. No, it is not threatening war; we’re almost there,” Locsin tweeted.
The top diplomat also pointed out that China does not see a problem in conducting joint exploration with the Philippines in areas in the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea.
“In undisputed areas, China sees no problem doing it explicitly under Philippine law; in disputed areas under my MoU (memorandum of understanding) on oil & gas which spares either from conceding sovereign claims,” he said.
In a separate tweet, the DFA chief said the Malampaya gas field had “long antedated the arbitral award” that invalidated Beijing’s nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea.
In May 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte claimed that Chinese President Xi Jinping threatened to go to war if the Philippines would invoke the July 2016 arbitral award.
According to Duterte, he told his Chinese counterpart that the West Philippine Sea “is ours and we intend to drill oil there.”
“I said it is ours and I will drill the oil. And I tell them do not do it because it is ours. But I have the arbitral ruling. But they said that if you force the issue, we will go to war,” Duterte said
In an earlier tweet on October 28, Locsin said: “China doesn’t need our oil and gas. We do. And China is the only one offering to help develop it.”
Locsin accepts China’s ‘superior’ terms of reference for oil exploration.
“A Filipino discovered humongous oil and gas just offshore Beijing. It’s rolling in minerals,” he said.
The Philippines’ top diplomat tweeted this in response to Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo’s statement that China should first acknowledge the July 2016 arbitral ruling before pushing through with the proposed joint exploration in the South China Sea.
China wins SCS map war
In his Forbes article, Mourdoukoutas probed a different angle, the battle over maps.
“Manila is giving in to Beijing’s ambitions to redraw the map of the South China Sea — by agreeing to once again place a visa sticker and stamp on Chinese passports printed with a nine-dash line in the South China Sea.
“That’s according to a recent op-ed published in Global Times, which cheered the warming up of relations between the two countries, and the pro-China policies of Duterte’s administration.
“‘Ties between China and the Philippines have warmed up in the past two years,’ says the op-ed. ‘Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly backed the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative.’
“Back in 2012, Manila stopped placing a sticker and a stamp in Beijing’s newly issued passports displaying a China map that included the nine-dash line.
“That’s a vague self-defined borderline, which allows Beijing to assert control over virtually all of the sea. It includes areas claimed by neighboring countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.
“Beijing has been doing whatever it takes to exercise its assertions. Like building human-made islands, sailing vessels in disputed waters, and printing maps that display the nine-dash line. Beijing’s assertion is something that could eventually have a big impact in regional financial markets, as it raises geopolitical risks.
“The softening of relations between Manila and Beijing that the Global Times is referring to came after President Duterte failed to enforce an international tribunal ruling back in 2016, which determined that China has no historic rights to most of the South China Sea — a big win for the Philippines and its American allies, which had filed the case against China.
“Apparently, President Duterte gave in to Beijing at that time — voiding the international tribunal ruling in exchange for financing of infrastructure projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Duterte’s Build, Build, Build initiative.
“Softening of relations between China and the Philippines this time around over the South China Sea map comes at a time when relations between China and other countries in the region have been moving in the other direction. A couple of weeks ago, Vietnam and Malaysia banned ”Abominable,” a film produced by DreamWorks and China, which includes a scene containing a map featuring the ‘nine-dash line.’
“And both those countries have successfully deployed their naval forces to confront Beijing’s efforts to search for oil in disputed waters.
“Meanwhile, having repeatedly backed the Belt and Road Initiative, and letting Beijing win the South China Sea map war, President Duterte is waiting for Beijing’s investments to come through.”
Panos, appended this note about himself: “I’m professor and chair of the Department of Economics at LIU Post in New York. I also teach at Columbia University.”