Sat, 28 Jan 2023

CHEERS TO several media accounts that provided explainers and interviews that discussed a Supreme Court (SC) ruling on the 2005 joint exploration deal with China and Vietnam and its relevance to current developments and the new administration.

Rappler, TV5's Frontline Tonight, One News' The Chiefs, ANC's Dateline Philippines, and Facts First explained the ruling and its effect on future negotiations by the Marcos government. They recalled that the controversial agreement was signed by then President Gloria Arroyo whose intervention made possible the unification of the Marcos-Duterte tandem in last year's election. They also provided crucial context that should not be lost as President Marcos has just visited China, announcing continuing talks on the matter when he returned to Manila on January 5.

"Unconstitutional"

On January 10, the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional the 2005 agreement on joint exploration for oil by the Philippines, China, and Vietnam in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). A few days after Marcos returned from a state visit to China, the High Court ruled on a petition by Bayan Muna 15 years ago.

Voting 12-2-1, the High Court voided the tripartite agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), Vietnam Oil and Gas Corporation (PETROVIETNAM), and the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC). Covering over 142,000 square kilometers, the agreement lapsed on June 30, 2008.

The ruling said that "the JMSU is unconstitutional for allowing wholly-owned foreign corporations to participate in the exploration of the country's natural resources without observing the safeguards provided in Section 2, Article XII of the 1987 Constitution."

The five news accounts specified the arguments of petitioner Bayan Muna. These clarified how the Constitution stated the principles, as cited by the High Court - that the agreement violated the section in the Constitution mandating that "the exploration, development, and utilization (EDU) of natural resources shall be under the full control and supervision of the State."

Secret weapon?

ANC's Karmina Constantino interviewed Teddy Casino, National Council Member of Bayan, on January 11. He said that joint exploration "is still on the table with China" as Marcos just got home from a state visit there, making the ruling as "relevant as ever."

Further, Constantino asked about the influence of Arroyo in future deals and if she should be watched as she has been described by Marcos as his "secret weapon." "Of course, she's a secret. We don't know her role," Casino answered. He continued that there should be more transparency about her "role" given that the project she signed onto with China has now been proven unconstitutional.

Similarly, Neri Colmenares of Bayan Muna in Christian Esguerra's Facts First also said that "Arroyo was one of the first Presidents to play the China card, siya ang lumapit sa (she asked) China for loans." In the January 14 interview, he recalled how she was President when the NBN-ZTE and North and South Rail projects were signed. Rappler added to this by linking previous investigative reports that revealed negotiations for the JMSU involved billions in dollars of loans from China from 2002 to 2004. "The House of Representatives and Senate, both then headed by Arroyo's allies, aided her administration in pursuing the deal," Rappler's report read.

"If she is the secret weapon, we must be alarmed," Casino said. He and Colmenares described her as a secret weapon not of the country but of China.

Painting the needed background

The five news accounts also looked back to when former President Arroyo signed the said agreement.

TV5's Ed Lingao on January 12 explained the responsibility of each country and the supposed benefits for them. China was charged with data gathering or exploration, Vietnam with data processing, and the Philippines with data interpretation.

Colmenares in Facts First said the data given, however, was "vague and blurred." Colmenares added that CNOOC and PETROVIETNAM are not only foreign-owned but state-owned corporations, which put Filipinos at a greater disadvantage.

Jay Batongbacal, maritime law expert, made the same observation on January 13 in The Chiefs, adding that after data gathering, China became more aggressive in pursuing more deals.

What the ruling means now

Rappler on January 13 focused on how the ruling set legal limitations for joint exploration of the country's oil resources. Rappler's Jairo Bolledo cited retired SC Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who said that the only way a majority-owned foreign company can participate is by being only a "service contractor." Carpio added that only companies that are at least 60 percent-owned by Filipinos can participate in future deals.

Meanwhile, Batongbacal in One News cited previous cases where foreign-owned companies were part of exploration deals, not in Philippine waters but in the mining industry. He said that he was eager to know whether the ruling would "affirm, reject or reverse such agreements."

Keeping watch

The concern for the relevance of the ruling and the need to check government deals with foreign partners challenge the media and the public. The media should provide what citizens need to know about in order to be vigilant. The ruling should serve as a guide for news reports, what to ask about when government officials engage potential partners in talks, or claim signed agreements as gains.

As Esguerra said: "Babantayan natin 'yan kasi kapag contentious issue, nililibing yan e." (We will keep watch because when it's a contentious issue, they bury it.)

Such vigilance should be constant, citizen reaction immediate, and actions calling for accountability quick and direct - hopefully not as long as the Supreme Court takes to decide on these matters.

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