Graphic illustrating methane hydrate deposits (left). Methane hydrate “flammable ice” (right) subjected to heat. Photos: Geology.com and Canadian National Research Council
hough nothing Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has said or will say carries any shock value anymore, his surprising announcement on May 19 caused seismic tremors.
At a Manila press conference on that day, Pres. Duterte disclosed that while attending the “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing on May 15, Chinese Premier China Xi Jinping warned him that there would be war if the Philippines tried to enforce a United Nations arbitration ruling and drill for oil in the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte said the warning came after he told Xi of his country’s intention to drill for oil within its territorial waters. “We intend to drill oil there, if it’s yours, well, that’s your view, but my view is I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the earth, because it is ours,” Duterte said.
Duterte reported that Xi replied: “We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.”
Go to war?
Duterte’s surprising disclosure of his private conversation with Xi was likely made to allay charges that he had gone soft on China and had refused to push China to comply with an award last year by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled unanimously in favor of the Philippines.
The Hague tribunal had dismissed China’s claim to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea within the so-called nine-dash line which covers 3 million included the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. It found that China’s historical claims were negated and superseded by China’s acceptance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which recognized each country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Duterte is aware that the Malampaya oil fields in Palawan, which supply the fuel requirements of Luzon’s natural gas plants, will run out in 2024. He was also aware that a Philippine company, PXP Energy, chaired by Manuel V. Pangilinan, had a Service Contract to explore for oil in the Recto Bank, which is located 50 miles from Palawan, and that PXP Energy had engaged in talks with China National Offshore Oil Co., China’s state-owned oil producer, for a possible commercial arrangement covering Recto Bank.
Before Duterte met with Xi, Pangilinan had expressed optimism. “I think to the extent that the government has adapted a more friendly, more conciliatory push to China, I think the atmosphere has become better for a resumption of a discussion with China in general. And we’d like to move in that direction,” he said.
Duterte may have believed that when he informed Xi that the Philippines would drill for oil in the Recto Bank that Xi would have been more receptive to the prospect of joint exploration.
Duterte seemed taken aback by Xi’s war response. After all, when Duterte visited China on an official state visit in October 2016, he announced his military and economic “separation” from the U.S. declaring then that “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
As recently as three weeks before Xi threatened war, on April 29, 2017, at the opening of the Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Manila, Duterte told reporters that the there was “no point” for ASEAN to protest Chinese artificial island building in disputed areas of the South China Sea because ASEAN was “helpless” to stop China.
“It cannot be an issue anymore. It’s already there. What would be the purpose also of discussing it if you cannot do anything,” Duterte said referring to China’s transformation of reefs and shoals in areas of the sea claimed by the Philippines and other nations into artificial islands, and installing military facilities there.
Why did Xi threaten war against a new strategic ally?
China did not comment on Duterte’s disclosure of Xi’s threat of war until four days later when China’s spokesman described their conversation as merely part of their agreement to “strengthen communication on important bilateral issues”. But the spokesman did not deny Duterte’s account of the conversation.
Duterte’s new Secretary of Foreign Affairs former Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano sought to downplay the meaning of Xi’s threat, issuing a similar statement echoing China’s line. “The conversation was very frank. There was mutual respect, there was mutual trust. The context was not threatening each other, that we will go to war. The context is how do we stabilize the region and how do we prevent conflict,” Cayetano insisted.
So why did Xi issue his threat of war against the Philippines?
The answer can found in a news article that appeared in Mining News on May 18, 2017, the same week that Xi issued his war threat. It was news that Xi knew before Xinhua released it. The news was revealed in the title of the article: “China successfully mines flammable ice from the South Sea”(Read article).
“In a first for the country, engineers extracted the gas from the so-called “flammable ice” – methane hydrate, where the gas is trapped in ice crystals – and converted it to natural gas in a single, continuous operation on a floating production platform.
After nearly two decades of research and exploration, China has successfully mined so-called “flammable ice” in what authorities qualify as a major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution.
The element, a kind of natural gas hydrate, was discovered in the area in 2007, but this is the first time the country is able to successfully extract combustible ice from the seabed, in a single, continuous operation on a floating production platform in the Shenhu area of the South China Sea, about 300km southeast of Hong Kong, state-run Xinhua news agency reports.”
Methane hydrate global sources are estimated to exceed the combined energy content of all other fossil fuels.”
It turns out that China was not looking to drill for oil but for a natural resource more valuable than oil. Estimates of the South China Sea’s methane hydrate potential now range as high as 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas equivalent, sufficient to satisfy China’s entire energy consumption for at least 50 years.
The commercial production of methane hydrate would reduce China’s dependence on energy imports, which accounts for nearly 60% of its crude oil needs, making it the world’s No. 2 importer by volume, after the U.S.
Methane hydrate will also aid China’s efforts to shift to natural gas from coal, which accounts for nearly 70% of its primary-energy consumption, which has caused harmful pollution to China’s cities.
China’s continued economic prosperity will depend on its successful extraction of methane hydrates in the waters of Vietnam and the Philippines where China’s marine researchers have discovered this mineral that will lead to a “global energy revolution.”
This explains why China is aggressively pursuing the occupation of Philippine and Vietnamese shoals and their conversion to artificial islands in order to safely conduct their exploration and production of methane hydrate in the territorial waters of Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Sampaguita Field in the Recto Bank (Reed Bank) area located only 50 miles west of the Philippine island of Palawan is considered a methane hydrate “honey pot” which carries enough of this precious resource to make the Philippines not only energy self-sufficient for 1,000 years but can generate billions, if not trillions, of dollars in revenue from its export.
Pres. Benigno Aquino Jr. may have mistakenly believed that Recto Bank had oil and that there was enough of it there to warn China in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July 2011 to back off any plans to invade it. “If you set foot in Recto Bank, it will be as if you set foot on Recto Avenue,” he warned. “What’s ours is ours!”
Magdalo partylist Rep. Gary Alejano deplored Duterte’s admission that he is “powerless” to stop China. “This is a defeatist narrative fitting squarely to what China wants us to feel,” he said. He expressed hope that Duterte would show the same resolve in defending national interest and territorial integrity “the same way he treats his war on drugs in the country.
“He should be brave and face China instead of killing his own countrymen (in his war on drugs). He must remember that these illegal drugs also come from China,” Alejano said.
Alejano also warned of “any economic deal or economic development to prosper in exchange to forfeiting our rights over the disputed waters,” he said.
In his article “Rally to the flag” published on July 27, 2012, former Local Governments Secretary Rafael Alunan III proposed that Philippine “diplomacy should forge strong bonds with the UN, ASEAN and friendly nations like Japan, South Korea and Australia, in partnership with the United States to provide the back-up muscle, to get China to back off and sincerely live up to its declared “peaceful rise.” Diplomacy must forge close security ties and supply agreements at concessional terms during our build-up phase.”
“The US and Japanese militaries are already more than a match for the Chinese which is the main reason why China is resorting to bully tactics and bluffing with its civilian maritime agencies so as not to provoke a military response from other regional and global powers,” Rep. Alejano said.
Chinese fighter jets buzz US Navy destroyer as it conducts “freedon of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea (left). Bay Area Filipino-Americans demonstrate against China (right). Photos: US Navy and Atty. Rodis
The day after Duterte disclosed Xi’s threat, Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio urged the Philippine government to sue China for threatening war against the Philippines over the West Philippine Sea dispute.
Carpio wrote, “As a nation that under its Constitution has renounced war as an instrument of national policy, the Philippines’ recourse is to bring China’s threat of war to another UNCLOS arbitral tribunal, to secure an order directing China to comply with the ruling of the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal that declared the Reed Bank part of Philippine EEZ.”
Justice Carpio also urged the Philippine government to bring China’s threat to go to war before the United Nations General Assembly by “sponsoring a resolution condemning China’s threat of war against the Philippines and demanding that China comply with the ruling of the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal.”
If the Philippines does not protest China’s threat of war, it will mean that the Philippines is surrendering its sovereignty to China. .”Acquiescence means the Philippines will lose forever its EEZ in the West Philippine Sea to China,” Justice Carpio said.
On the occasion of celebrating the 119th anniversary of Philippine independence on June 12, Filipinos should remember the meaning of the words in the Philippine National Anthem first sung on that fateful day.
Land dear and holy,
Cradle of noble heroes,
Ne’er shall invaders
Trample thy sacred shore.
(Send comments to Rodel50@gmail.com or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800). Published 6/1/17