Carpio sees ‘light at end of tunnel’ in South China Sea disputes


MANILA – Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said Wednesday there could be hope in the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, with China reportedly stating that it would not stop exploration activities in Reed Bank.

Speaking in the online Pilipinas Conference organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute, Carpio said he sees the maritime dispute being resolved peacefully “to the satisfaction of all disputant states” if Beijing pursues and sticks to a similar memorandum of agreement and terms of reference it signed with Manila, describing it as a “soft admission” by China of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea.

The West Philippine Sea is the country’s EEZ in the South China Sea, which China claims in near entirety.

“While China in the past has refused to abide by the arbitral ruling, recent developments indicate that there may be light at the end of the tunnel,” Carpio said.

The Philippines and China in 2018 signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to cooperate in exploring oil and gas reserves in the West Philippine Sea under the Philippine service contract system, followed by the signing of the Terms of Reference (TOR) in August 2019.

Carpio said a third and final agreement, a commercial one, should have been signed last March 2020 in Manila between Chinese state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Forum Energy, holder of service contract 72 from the Philippine government to extract gas in the Reed Bank in the West Philippine Sea.
“That commercial agreement would have been vetted by Philippine and Chinese officials. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic aborted the meeting in Manila and no new meeting has been scheduled to date,” he said.

The Philippines has lifted a moratorium on exploration activities in the Reed Bank.

“The Chinese response has been very encouraging. China stated that it would not stop the exploration activities of the Philippines in Reed Bank because China and the Philippines have arrived at a consensus on the matter, referring to the MOU and TOR. This is very unlike the Chinese reaction to Vietnamese and Malaysian exploration activities in the latter’s EEZ in the South China Sea,” Carpio said.

“The MOU and TOR arrangement will satisfy the objective of the Philippines to preserve its sovereign rights in the EEZ in the West Philippine Sea while allowing China through its state-owned enterprise CNOOC and CNOOC’s partners to get 40 percent of the net proceeds of the gas in Reed Bank. It will be a fair and just arrangement satisfying China’s objective of a win-win solution in the South China Sea dispute.”

He said the same MOU and TOR would expectedly be offered to other claimant states Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Indonesia.