HONOLULU—There are substantial gas deposits—so enormous that they “dwarf” the Malampaya oil fields off Palawan—in disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), President Benigno Aquino III said at the business leaders conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum.
And by next year, the President said, a US firm would start operations in the gas-rich territory. He made the remarks at a session on commodity security at the Apec CEO Summit, in which he was asked what his administration was doing to address the high cost of electricity in the Philippines.
“There is a new field that [will] be brought up or [started], I understand, by next year by an American company in the northern portion of the Philippines,” Mr. Aquino said.
“There are substantial gas deposits that we believe are already in the proven scale at this point in time, that will dwarf the Malampaya oil fields. Some of them are in areas that are part of the contentious disputes as to sovereignty over the same,” he said.
Exclusive economic zone
The President said his administration was working on “steps to determine as to who actually owns them consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
Asked how he expected the dispute to be resolved, he said: “We are hoping that all the signatories to the United Nations convention will adhere to [its] stipulations.
“[Among the stipulations] is the 200-mile exclusive economic zone, which clearly shows that the areas in dispute are in our favor, that we have a solid claim to [the disputed areas].”
The President said there were various mechanisms for arbitration to settle the matter “once and for all, and to have these resources benefit not only our country but [also] our neighbors in the region.”
He said proper exploitation of these resources “will transform our energy needs from dependence on the Middle East … to more indigenous sources.”
Mr. Aquino and Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras were not immediately available to provide reporters details on US involvement in the disputed gas-rich territory.
The US government has earlier indicated its support for the Philippines in disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
In a speech at the launch in Makati City of the National Renewable Energy Program months ago, at which President Aquino was present, US Ambassador Harry Thomas said: “I assure you, in all subjects, we the United States are with the Philippines.
“The Philippines and the United States are strategic treaty allies. We are partners. We will continue to consult and work with each other on issues including the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands.”
Thomas’ remarks during the event sponsored by the Department of Energy are believed to be the most unequivocal expression of support so far by the US government to the Philippine claim over parts of the Spratly island chain, which is also being claimed wholly or partly by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
Mr. Aquino discussed China’s role as the economic superpower in Asia at the Apec CEO Summit.
During the open forum on commodity security, he told off a Chinese participant who had raised a perception that the Philippines had not been good to China.
“Can we just answer the ‘big brother’ issue—that we have not been nice to the big brother?” the President said.
Citing the tourism sector, he said the Philippines had sent about 800,000 Filipinos “out of our population of 95 million” to China.
“China reciprocates by sending us 200,000,” he said. “So in terms of balance of trade and tourism, we’ve sent a lot more than China sends to us.”
The President said that “in terms of direct investments, we have $2.5 billion in direct investment to China, and we have gotten $600 million so far from China.”
“So I think we have invested more in China than [the other way around], although China’s economy is way, way beyond ours,” he said, adding:
“I think it would be unfair to say that the Philippines has not been a good brother to the big brother. I think we have demonstrated that time and again.”
Mr. Aquino also addressed the issue posed by a mining company CEO, Richard Adkerson of Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc., who joined him in the panel onstage during the commodity security session.
Freeport has a mining operation in the Philippines.
Adkerson said there was a need to secure the long-term investments of mining firms, and noted that there were many Philippine regulations, including environmental rules, that had to be complied with.
To which Mr. Aquino said: “We are in a period of having to, shall we say, tighten the rules.”
Citing an example, he said there was “one area” where there seemed to be “a beach on the coastline.”
“A closer shot will reveal that it’s run out from this open-pit mine that some of the unscrupulous mining entities did not deem necessary to contain,” he said.
Mr. Aquino mentioned “increasing the fines” when asked by the moderator how his administration was tightening the rules.
“Versus the profit [mining companies] make, the fine is such a pittance. I think, in one instance, about $1,000, and then they [make] hundreds of millions [of dollars] in terms of their exports. So [the fine] is really inconsequential,” he said.
At the same conference of CEOs, the President bragged about his administration’s gains in ensuring food security by merely taking the necessary steps.
Asked how far the Philippine government had come in ensuring the sufficiency of the country’s food supply, he said: “I am very pleased to note that our agriculture minister is giving us a guarantee that there’s no need for further importation of rice with the next harvest due in January.
“And what was done was not a radical change but, rather, just doing what was necessary.”
The President said the government had been providing farmers genuine certified seeds and necessary inputs, helping upland farmers with their marketing campaign, and “not making it more profitable to import rather than to plant.”
“These are very basic steps that led to three quarters of bumper harvests. We have done that in a year’s time,” he said.
According to Mr. Aquino, his administration inherited “tremendous problems” in food security because, he said, the preceding administration was interested more in political survival than in doing what was right.
Good for 100 days
In a speech at the 8th National Organic Agriculture Conference at Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac City last week, Mr. Aquino announced that the Philippines had a supply of rice good for 100 days even after the onslaught of typhoons that struck rice-producing provinces in Luzon in the past months.
He indicated that the Philippines’ rice supply was so good that he was already considering exporting to other countries.
“To tell you the truth, whenever [Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala] sends me numbers, I compute the figures and tell him, ‘Procy, I think we can already afford to export,’” the President said in jest. “He said, ’There are still expected typhoons. Some other time, perhaps.’”
Mr. Aquino credited Alcala for going back to the basics—such as fixing irrigation systems—in ensuring rice supply.