MANILA - A joint development venture with China in the Recto Bank, which lies within the West Philippine Sea, may legitimize Beijing's claim in the disputed waters, an analyst said Thursday.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said joint developments have been proposed and used as a means for addressing unsettled territorial disputes in other parts of the world.
The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the disputed South China Sea, where China lays sweeping claims. China has ignored the Philippines' July 2016 legal victory, where an international arbitration court invalidated its nine-dash line claim over the waters.
"The problem here in our case is that we have a clearly legitimate claim, which has been validated by nothing less than the international tribunal. There is supposedly no overlap, and yet China continues to insist on its illegitimate claim," he told ANC's Early Edition.
"By accepting joint development, in essence we are accepting that illegitimate claim might have some currency, might have some substance to that," he said.
Exploration at the resource-rich Recto Bank (Reed Bank) was suspended in 2014 when Manila brought Beijing to a Hague-based arbitration court to clarify maritime entitlements in the vital waterway.
A report from the United States Energy Information Administration in 2013 said the bank could hold up to 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 5.4 billion barrels of petroleum.
It was being eyed to replace the Malampaya Deepwater Gas-to-Power Platform, which supplies almost half the electricity of Luzon and is estimated to last until only ten more years.
An energy official last month said exploration at the bank may resume by the end of the year if the Department of Foreign Affairs lifts its suspension.
Batongbacal said the Philippines must ensure that "whatever we agree to does not result in an acknowledgement of China’s illegitimate claim."
"That’s why any kind of bargain with China on this has to be really very well thought of, and the terms have to be very well-written in order to prevent that kind of even an implied recognition," he said.
"It’s bad enough that we have actually the official position very loosely declared by the President. When he said that China has this historic claim, that’s almost one step closer to acknowledging officially because he is the President of the country," he added.
Batongbacal supports Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano's statement that the energy department is now focused on allowing oil and gas exploration in "areas that are not disputed."
He said this would mean that Manila is "implementing and continuing to attempt to implement" the Hague ruling.
However, he said, "there’s probably no petroleum in those areas" which are not disputed beyond the 200-nautical mile zone of the Philippines.
"That will be the ultimate test of whether we have retained our sovereignty and sovereign rights over these areas—if we still have a choice, the freedom to select other partners in any development in the West Philippine Sea," he said.
"If we find that we don’t and every development that we have there will always have to have a Chinese partner, then that means that we have lost the sovereign rights and jurisdiction to that extent," he added.