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Spratlys deals irked US, says Drilon

RP envoy also says DFA had no part in pact

By Juliet Labog-Javellana
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:28:00 03/08/2008

Filed Under: Foreign affairs & international relations, Treaties & International Organisations, Spratlys

MANILA, Philippines -- The United States had been "pissed off" by the Philippines' deals with China, including the joint seismic study in the disputed Spratly Islands, former Senate President Franklin Drilon said Friday.

Drilon said Philippine Ambassador to Japan Domingo Siazon Jr. told him about the US displeasure before the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) involving the Philippines, China and Vietnam was signed in 2005.

"Ambassador Siazon told me sometime in 2005 that the US was pissed off with the Philippines warming up to China as evidenced by these deals, contracts and loans that we have entered into with China," Drilon told the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of INQUIRER.net) on the phone.

Siazon said, however, that he could not remember that conversation.

But Siazon, a former foreign secretary, did caution the government against the seismic study, saying it could violate constitutional restrictions on foreigners' exploration and development of Philippine resources.

He told the Inquirer on the phone from Tokyo that the Department of Foreign Affairs "had worried" about the agreement, of which it was apparently not a part.

The Philippines and China forged an agreement in 2004 to conduct a seismic study of areas in the Spratlys. When Vietnam, another Spratly claimant, objected, it became part of the tripartite JMSU, which is now being assailed as a "sellout" of the Philippines.

Some lawmakers said the agreement could have been in exchange for at least $8 billion in loans from China for, among others, the NorthRail and SouthRail projects and the National Broadband Network (NBN) deal.

They don't talk

Drilon said Siazon had gotten wind of the US displeasure from Japanese officials, who in turn were told of it by US officials.

But Siazon told the Inquirer: "I don't remember, it's 2005." He said Japanese officials were not wont to discuss such things.

"The Japanese don't talk; they count," he said, meaning they monitored visits of heads of states in various countries in the region.

Drilon, however, insisted that Siazon had disclosed the matter to him over dinner at the ambassador's residence in Tokyo.

"He doesn't remember, but I remember," Drilon said when told of Siazon's response. "He made the statement to me in his house in Tokyo when I came for a visit, and in that dinner, he gathered several Japanese legislators. But he did not say that in front of the legislators; he told me privately."

Asked what were the implications of the US displeasure over the Philippines' dealings with China, Drilon said: "We are part of the proxy war between the US and China over dominance in the region."

Be very careful

Siazon said the government should be careful about allowing foreign exploration in areas claimed by the Philippines.

"They have to look very carefully at the implementation part because of some restrictions in the Constitution. We have the existing 60-40 restriction, but an imaginative solution can be found; they can widen the area," he said.

Siazon said the DFA was apparently not included in the deal.

"I know the DFA had worried about the difficulty of implementing that agreement," he said.

He denied knowledge of the terms of the JMSU, including the "parameters" and the "coordinates."

Siazon said there might not be a problem if the area covered by the joint study or exploration was not confined to the Philippines' claim.

He said there would be no violation of the Constitution if the activity was limited to a joint study, such as suggested by the title of the JSMU.

"If it's just a study, there is no problem, there is no violation. It's the development or exploration [that could be a violation]," he said.

Asked if the agreement could be used as basis for impeaching President Macapagal-Arroyo, as feared by some sectors, Siazon said: "But she did not sign that."

First on the stand

On Thursday, Drilon told the Inquirer that Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, then Ms Arroyo's chief legal counsel, had sought his help about the yet to be signed bilateral agreement between the Philippines and China because she felt it might be in violation of the Constitution and could be grounds for impeaching the President.

Friday, four senators indicated that they wanted their former colleague to elaborate on his claim.

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., and Senators Panfilo Lacson and Francis Escudero III concurred that Drilon, with his wealth of information as a former Senate president and a former ally of the Arroyo administration, should be the first witness on the stand once the chamber got its inquiry going on the questionable agreement.

"Now that we have established that questionable deals such as the [NBN project] can get past Chinese and Filipino officials, it is but proper to scrutinize all transactions we have with them," Pangilinan said.

Escudero said Drilon could provide vital information considering that the Senate might not be able to summon the Ombudsman because of constitutional limits.

Pimentel said that aside from Drilon, Romulo and the other Filipino signatories could be asked to testify.

With a report from Gil C. Cabacungan Jr.

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