THE government plans to acquire research vessels to explore the disputed South China Sea to assess the potential of Philippine Rise, which is rich in minerals and gas, an official said Tuesday.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said President Rodrigo Duterte approved the plan during a Cabinet meeting last Monday after saying the exploration of Philippine Rise would be reserved for Filipinos.
“The President reiterated that the only right that foreigners can exercise in Philippine Rise is the right to innocent passage,” Roque said.
“[The] exploration for natural resources, [the] conduct of scientific research, [the] laying of submarine cables and [the] building of artificial islands in Philippine Rise are reserved for Philippine nationals.”
Roque also said the Philippines and China should set aside their dispute over the South China Sea and allow the joint exploration of the resource-rich waters.
He again defended Manila’s push for a joint exploration with China even as its critics warned that could jeopardize a 2016 arbitration ruling that had invalidated Beijing’s claim to virtually the whole of the South China Sea.
Roque said the government was now looking at resuming its talks with China for a possible exploration of the Recto Bank, which is covered by Service Contract 72.
Meanwhile, an expert said Tuesday the Philippines may jointly explore the South China Sea with China provided the two agreed on a treaty framework.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said a treaty was the only way for the two countries to be bound by rules on joint exploration.
“The treaty must have its own implementing law because this will be entirely different from the existing contract system,” Batongbacal told ANC’s Early Edition.
Roque said Duterte and his Cabinet also observed that the Philippines should invest in maritime survey ships so the country could better assess the resources that could be exploited in the Philippine Rise.
He said there was a proposal to use the Malampaya Fund to buy the ships, but it was later rejected due to potential legal questions.
The government’s share of the royalties from the Malampaya gas facility could only be used for energy-related projects under the law.
“It was Secretary Dominguez who said, ‘We have the money anyway, we’ll buy even if we don’t have to use Malampaya funds.’ So the government will buy more research vessels,” Roque said.
However, he could not say when the maritime ships would be bought.
In the same Cabinet meeting, Duterte reaffirmed his order to stop all foreign exploration in Philippine Rise.
“President reiterated that the only right that foreigners can exercise in Philippine Rise is the right to innocent passage,” Roque said.