South China Sea concerns flare up as Duterte considers drilling in Beijing’s claims

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Manila appears to be testing its relationship with Beijing as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte considers resuming energy exploration in the tension-laden South China Sea.

Oil and gas drilling in the Reed Bank, located in the international waterway, has been suspended since 2014. That came after Manila launched an international arbitration case against Beijing over the latter’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea — an issue that has sparked numerous Philippine protests against the mainland and weighed on bilateral ties.

But activity in the Reed Bank could recommence before year-end, Ismael Ocampo, a director at the Philippines’ Department of Energy’s Resource Development Bureau, said on Wednesday, Reuters reported. An underwater mountain off the Philippine coast, the feature is believed to hold significant oil and gas deposits.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte prior to their bilateral meeting during the Belt and Road Forum, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 15, 2017.
Etienne Oliveau | Pool | Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte prior to their bilateral meeting during the Belt and Road Forum, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 15, 2017.
Over 20 oil, gas and coal blocks in the Reed Bank as well as areas around Palawan and the Sulu Sea could be be offered in a corporate bidding round set for December, Ocampo said.

A year ago, a tribunal in The Hague validated Manila’s right to access offshore oil and gas fields in its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone that includes the Reed Bank, but Beijing refused to recognize the ruling. Since then, Duterte has stalled on enforcing the court decision, opting to instead improve existing ties with the North Asian giant in order to secure mainland investments.

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