Feeling the pressure of concerned Filipino people who demand from transparency from President Rodrigo Duterte’s dealings with China, the Senate expressed their concern and are now wanting to look into the details of the 29 deals sealed by the Philippines and China during the recent state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Senator Ralph Recto, Senate President Pro-Tempore said that they want to grill the President’s Cabinet officials about the Philippines’ dealings with China.
“If the Senate will start floor debates on the 2019 national budget next month, then the particulars of any or all of the 29 Philippine-China deals signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit may be asked of the Cabinet member who signed the deal, or whose agency is responsible for implementing the agreement,” the Senator said.
He also added, “This is to serve notice to department secretaries that the issue of the 29 agreements may crop up in the course of the plenary examination of their budget. So be prepared for queries.”
The Senate President Pro Tempore explained that senators would be more interested “if the agreement binds us to a project which will be financed by loans, enlarges the national debt or requires large budgetary counterpart requiring yearly appropriations. Also if the dealings would be beneficial to the Filipino people”.
“Is the project really needed by the people? Or is it supplier driven? The price tag of these commitments must be explained, as well as the benefits to the public. If these are grants and interest-free loans, then the Senate will be advised as well so that we can convey our thanks,” Recto added.
For his part Senator Francis “Chiz” Escudero admonished the government to disclose to the public the full details of all the bilateral agreements signed between Philippines and China, particularly the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on possible energy cooperation in the West Philippine Sea.
“In the name of the people, we ask the government to reveal all the agreements signed, especially the joint exploration deal. Only then can anyone comment intelligently on whether the agreement is good or not,” Escudero said.
The first day of Chinese President Xi’s two-day visit here, the administration signed undisclosed details on 29 bilateral deals with the Beijing government, including the joint oil and gas exploration.
Escudero said that during the Arroyo administration, the Philippines, China and Vietnam entered into an agreement to jointly conduct oil offshore exploration covering both disputed and undisputed waters, also known as the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking. However, he said, the agreement was between the countries’ respective oil companies.
He wants the government to be circumspect by looking at the possible implications of the MOU on the joint oil and gas development between Beijing and Manila on the Philippines’s claims in the West Philippine Sea.
“While the government cannot enforce the ruling of the international court that grants the Philippines ownership over territories in the disputed sea, the least the government can do is to assert its claim in the policy speeches and declarations because this is what the Filipino people are expecting,” Escudero added,
Meanwhile, Malacañang said there is still a chance to walk away from the signed agreement with China on cooperation on oil and gas development in the West Philippine Sea if it is detrimental to the country’s interest.
According to Presidential Spokesman and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, the signing of the MOU just meant that the there is an initial understanding that both parties agreed to agree on certain things and the country can still rescind it, since it is not legally binding.
“Of course, it should always be in favor of us and not just in favor of them,” he explained in an ambush interview.
The Presidential Chief Legal Counsel also added, “According to President Xi during the bilateral agreement, the talks between the two countries will be based on mutual respect, mutual fairness and respect for each other’s sovereignty.”
When asked how soon will the President lift the moratorium to explore in the West Philippine Sea, Panelo said: “If the recommendation of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and the President thinks it is best suited to pursue and make forward our interests, he will do it. The President listens to advice and recommendations coming from members of his cabinet. But ultimately it’s the President’s call and always based on whether or not it is for the best of the country.”
Panelo also said it will still be premature to pass some judgments on the MOU since both parties are still in the process of negotiating. But he said that he agreed with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. that the MOU will take into consideration the 2016 arbitral ruling.
“As I have repeatedly said, the arbitral ruling is there forever, permanently. Nobody can take that away from us,” he said in closing.