After more than two years of negotiation, ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea on Nov. 11, 2002, thus resolving long-running bilateral security concerns in the South China Sea.
Because of the eagerness of China, the Philippines and Vietnam to look for oil resources in that body of water, the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation, the Philippine National Oil Company and Vietnam’s Oil and Gas Corporation jointly signed the Tripartite Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in the Agreement Area in the South China Sea in Manila on March 14, 2005, under the pretense that they were promoting regional cooperation.
The terms of the agreement lasted three years. The parties expressed their resolve to transform the South China Sea into an area of peace, stability, cooperation and development, stating that the signing of the agreement would not undermine the basic position held by each of the governments on the South China Sea issue.
The agreement also said the parties should engage in cooperation and studies based on the principles of equality and consensus.
The parties were also to establish a committee that would negotiate the progress of exploratory work, the cost of which would be shared equally. Expenses for the first stage of exploration were US$15 million and the area was to cover 142,886km².
The confidential agreement was not publicized.
Even the Philippine Ministry of National Defense and associated units were kept in the dark on the contents of the agreement.
Recent factional infighting in the Philippines has led to accusations of corruption and treason over deals between China and the Philippines on the Spratly Islands. A Philippine opposition congressman is trying to force Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to step down over the tripartite agreement.
The incident stems from Philippine House Speaker Jose de Venecia’s visit to Beijing on Jan. 10.
During a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), de Venecia proposed setting up fishing corridors in the South China Sea to establish cooperation between the three states’ fishing fleets to complement the trilateral agreement.
However, de Venecia’s interests came into conflict with the interests of Arroyo when de Venecia’s son, Jose “Joey” de Venecia III, accused the president’s husband of taking kickbacks in a US$330 million national broadband network (NBN) contract with China. Arroyo retaliated by forcing de Venecia to resign from his post as congressional speaker in a February vote.
Next, opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV demanded on Feb. 26 that the Blue Ribbon, Defense and Environment senate committees investigate Arroyo for corruption in relation to the NBN contract.
When Arroyo signed the agreement on exploration of natural resources in the Spratly Islands with China and Vietnam in 2005, she had done so without first consulting the Philippine foreign ministry and navy, a potentially treasonous act that might have violated the Philippine Constitution and national sovereignty.
At the end of February, the House Committee on Agriculture investigated Arroyo and Jose de Venecia over suspicion of graft and bribery relating to the Spratlys deal.
The deal included 31 agreements such as the NBN, the Cyber-Education and Northrail deals and the Framework Agreement on Expanding and Deepening Bilateral Economic and Trade Cooperation between RP (the Philippines) and China. Arroyo recently put on hold 11 infrastructure projects funded by the Chinese government in the wake of the NBN scandal, including the Northrail, Banaoang Pump Irrigation and General Santos Fishing Port Complex Expansion/Improvement projects, as well as the Manila South Railway project (phase 1) and the Non-Intrusive Container Inspection System project (phase 2).
China had planned to provide loans amounting to US$330 million for the NBN, US$500 million for the Northrail project, US$932 million for the South Railway project and US$465 million for the Cyber-Education deal.
Sources say the Philippine government signed the secret agreement with the Chinese government in exchange for a US$4 billion loan from Beijing. In return China would have undertaken resource exploration in the Spratly Islands, which the Philippines call Kalayaan.
This move led to protests by Philippine fishing organizations, which called for the resignation of Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo as they deemed the agreement would affect their tuna fishing.
On March 24, Chairman of the Philippine Senate Manuel Villar criticized the developments and claimed that the joint exploration agreement between the Philippines, China and Vietnam could be declared unconstitutional.
While the joint seismic study agreement will be renewed this or next month, the corruption scandal has exposed the Philippine government’s behind-the-scenes deal with the Chinese government.
Since the agreement involves a foreign country undertaking exploration in territories claimed by the Philippines, it remains uncertain if the trilateral agreement will be renewed.
Chen Hurng-yu is a professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Translated by Ted Yang
Editor’s note: Johnny Neihu is on leave.
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