By: Francis Allan L. Angelo
MANILA – Expect China to reclaim the disputed Scarborough Shoal before President Rodrigo Duterte steps down in 2022.
This is the belief of Supreme Court (SC) Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio in his lecture during the U.S. Embassy’s Media Seminar on Maritime Issues here on Wednesday.
Carpio said China is emboldened to make the move after Pres. Duterte expressed that he could not stop the Chinese from building structures in the disputed area also known as Panatag shoal.
“We all know they have a plan and they will do that before the end of the term of President Duterte, and because that is the time they will also sign the Code of Conduct,” Carpio said.
While the code of conduct between China and Southeast Asian nations (which includes the Philippines) will “manage” the ongoing territorial dispute and avoid “shooting wars,” Carpio said it is unlikely to settle the issues with finality.
“After they finish the reclamation, their island-building in the Scarborough Shoal, they will say, ‘let’s sign the Code of Conduct, nobody builds anything anymore,’ and that will legitimize what they have created, their artificial islands,” Carpio added.
The SC justice, however, sees hope in the memorandum of understanding (MOU) and the terms of reference (TOR) on a joint exploration deal between Manila and Beijing in the West Philippine Sea.
The MOU and the TOR will result in a private joint venture between China National Offshore Corporation (CNOOC) and Forum Energy, the Philippine government’s service contractor in Reed Bank.
Carpio said CNOOC’s presence in the venture means that China recognizes the country’s sovereign rights in the disputed area.
“So it will be a private contract between the two and CNOOC will be coming in under the service contract, so in effect, CNOOC impliedly recognizes we have sovereign rights,” he said.
Carpio said China’s move is part of its three-phase approach to the West Philippine Sea issue – first is to assert its “indisputable sovereignty,” second is to meet halfway with other claimants, while the third is to resort to resource sharing.
He said China can offer the joint exploration setup with other Southeast Asian nations which could eventually lead to peaceful resolution of the maritime disputes.
“The South China Sea is a very vital trade route and resource area. If someone blocks this area, it will send China’s economy to a grinding halt,” Carpio said.