MANILA — Malacañang said on Thursday it was "confident" that China was not exploring for oil at Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, despite reports that Filipino fishermen found a device use for this effort in the area.
Media reports said an expert confirmed that the equipment, which bore Chinese characters, was an ocean bottom seismometer. It reportedly detects man-made and natural seismic activity, and is also widely used in oil exploration.
The device will only function with an oil exploration ship that sends sound signals underwater, and authorities have not monitored any vessel like this at Scarborough, said Palace spokesman Harry Roque.
"For now, we are confident na wala naman pong exploration na nagaganap d’yan sa Scarborough. At kung meron naman po and if we can verify it, then we will file or do the corresponding action," he said in a press briefing.
Asked if the Philippines would ask an explanation from China, the official said, "Hindi po. Nag-iimbestiga talaga tayo kung bakit nakuha 'yong ganiyang equipment."
(No. We are investigating why that equipment was found there.)
A United Nations-backed court in 2016 junked Beijing's economic claims to almost the entire South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea.
The Hague court also said China had interfered with traditional Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and breached the country's sovereign rights by exploring for oil and gas near the Reed Bank.
Beijing snubbed the ruling.
President Rodrigo Duterte has since refused to press China to follow the ruling, as he pursued investments and loans from the economic superpower.
In May, Duterte called the arbitral award a scrap of "paper" that belongs to the wastebasket. But that same month, he said he would not withdraw Philippine ships from the waterway.
Duterte in October 2020 lifted a 6-year moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea, paving the way for 3 projects to resume and for the energy ministry to award more service contracts.
But the PNOC Exploration Corporation, the upstream oil, gas and coal subsidiary of state-owned Philippine National Oil Company, said in April it was still uncertain whether it could start drilling for oil by June 2022, when Duterte steps down.