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US to Philippines: We’re with you

Says they are allies on issue of Spratlys

The United States’ message to President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday was crystal clear.

“I assure you, in all subjects, we the United States, are with the Philippines,” US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas said to an audience that included Mr. Aquino at the launch of the national renewable energy program.

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“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 said.

Mr. Aquino welcomed Thomas’ statement during the Department of Energy event, which Palace officials described as the most unequivocal expression of support amid strident exchanges between China and claimants to the disputed islands.

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“Of course they are a superpower, they have more than 10 times our population. We do not want any hostilities to break out,” Aquino later told reporters when asked about recent Chinese actions in the disputed waters.

“Perhaps the presence of our treaty partners, the United States of America, ensures that all of us will have freedom of navigation (and) will conform to international law,” he said.

“We’re happy about it especially when they reiterated the reminder that we are a strategic partner and that there is a treaty between us,” Mr. Aquino said in his afternoon briefing.

“Let me just stress that whenever someone talks about the Spratlys, South China or West Philippine Sea, as we call it, there is this that they call adherence to international law. The international law that is applicable is called the Unclos,” he said.

Under the Unclos, or the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country’s exclusive economic zone extends 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) from its continental shelf.

Recto Bank

Mr. Aquino said there should be no dispute over the Recto Bank, pointing out it is just 148 kilometers (80 nautical miles) away from Palawan, while the nearest distance China is to the bank is 1,066 kilometers (576 nautical miles). Beijing calls the islet Reed Bank and claims it as part of its territory.

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“Five hundred seventy-six is obviously greater than 200. Why should there be a dispute?” the President said.

Malacañang spokespersons in recent days voiced optimism that the United States would fulfill its commitments under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. The treaty provides for automatic retaliation in the event of an attack on each other’s territory.

“We are thankful. We appreciate whatever declaration of support that the US and our neighboring countries will openly state,” Defense Undersecretary Eduardo Batac said.

“We’re hopeful it doesn’t incite further hostilities. The last thing we would want here is come up with hostile action from any party.”

Destined to grow

The partnership between the Philippines and the United States, Thomas said in his remarks, “is destined to grow stronger over the years” as the two countries attempt to become independent energy developers.

“I hope that we can become energy-independent and harness our own resources to fuel our industries, our homes and our dreams,” Thomas said. “I know that with that goal set, our partnership is destined to grow stronger over the years.”

The Recto Bank and the Spratly Islands are reputed to be oil-rich territories and are now the subject of exploration by the Philippines and other claimant states.

The Philippines and Vietnam, in particular, have expressed alarm at what they say are increasingly aggressive actions by China in the disputed waters.

The Philippines has accused China of undermining peace and stability in the region by sending naval vessels to intimidate Filipino fishermen and the crew of an oil exploration ship.

Manila has also accused Beijing of putting up posts and a buoy in Philippine-claimed areas of the Spratlys, an archipelago of more than 100 islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

China has denied taking any aggressive action, insisting it remains committed to resolving the territorial dispute peacefully.

Exploration activity

Energy Secretary Jose Rene D. Almendras said Thomas’ remarks were meant to show US support for the Philippines in all areas, including the energy sector.

“He just wanted to express the fact that the US government is supportive of the Philippines. I guess the ambassador just wanted to express his complete and total faith and support for the Philippines. He even mentioned he’s supporting us in everything,” said the energy secretary.

Almendras also stressed that the Philippines had not awarded any petroleum service contract within the disputed Spratlys area.

“What did we do to deserve the statement from China that we shouldn’t be developing oil fields in the Spratly Islands? I can’t understand that very well because there is no exploration activity in the Spratly Islands because there was a prior agreement that there should be no movement there,” he said.

Contract with UK firm

Almendras also explained that the contested Service Contract 72 awarded to the UK-based firm Forum Energy Plc covered only parts of Recto Bank, which were about 45 kilometers from the shore of Palawan.

“It’s already a service contract. We have finished the seismic work and analysis is already ongoing. That area is not within the Spratlys Island. We have not done anything in the Spratlys,” Almendras said.

The Recto Bank is home to prospective oil and gas areas, notably the Sampaguita prospect, which is reported to contain as many as 3.4-trillion cubic feet of gas and potentially 440 million barrels of oil.

The islet is believed to contain a much bigger deposit of oil and gas than the adjoining Malampaya gas field, the country’s only and largest gas production field to date. With a report from Dona Z. Pazzibugan and AFP

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TAGS: 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, Benigno Aquino III, China, Philippines, Recto Bank, Reed Bank, Spratly Islands, Territorial dispute, United States, US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas
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