Updated Apr 15, 2019, 12:53:17 PM
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 15) — Former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said Reed Bank, a sea feature supposedly rich on oil and gas and within the country's exclusive economic zone, is not part of the Philippines' core territory.
"It is not covered by the Treaty of Paris. Our country's core territory is the geographical area that was ceded by Spain to America under the Treaty of Paris," Enrile told CNN Philippines in a chance interview Monday.
"We have a claim under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea … But those are claims. We are claiming them. We did not have sovereign authority over them yet because to have sovereign authority, it must be respected by all other countries," he added.
Enrile initially said this on CNN Philippines' The Source in reaction to Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio's warning that China could seize gas in the Reed Bank, seen as an alternative to the Malampaya gas field, should the Philippines default on its loans with the East Asian giant.
The former senator, who is eyeing a return to the upper chamber in the coming elections, said he even agreed to exclude Reed Bank from the Baselines Law over ongoing territorial disputes when the measure was tackled in the Senate.
While Reed Bank was not included in the 1898 Treaty of Paris, where Spain agreed to hand over the Philippines to the U.S., the 1900 Treaty of Washington between the two world powers provided that Spain would cede other islands belonging to the archipelago but were outside of the lines drawn in the first treaty.
Carpio has said that Scarborough Shoal, which is 118 nautical miles west of the country and within its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), falls under Philippine territory under the Treaty of Washington.
Reed Bank is also well within the country's EEZ as it is only 85 nautical miles away from Philippine shores. The country claims it as as part of Palawan province.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country has the sovereign right to explore, exploit, conserve and manage the natural resources found within its EEZ.
As such, the Philippines awarded in 2010 a service contract to London-listed company Forum Energy Plc. to conduct oil exploration activities in Reed Bank, which the government calls as Recto Bank.
However, the government suspended in 2014 oil drilling and exploration activities in the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines, amid a territorial row with China.
China also claims Reed Bank as part of its sweeping nine-dash line boundary encompassing virtually the entire South China Sea. This has been struck down by the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013, but the East Asian giant has refused to recognize this ruling.
Force needed to enforce
"Those things can be enforced only by force. You have no international policeman or international court to enforce the edict or decision of any international agency or like the arbitration court. In the game of nations, it is always the law of force," Enrile told The Source.
He said if the country wants to enforce the 2013 arbitral ruling, it should focus on improving its economic and military capability.
The Philippines and U.S. have a mutual defense treaty which provides the both countries will aid each other in case one is attacked by a foreign power.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March assured the Philippines that it will protect the country in case of an attack in the South China Sea, but Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is not convinced about this statement
The Philippines has pushed for a review of the 68-year-old agreement, which some officials have called vague. Enrile said he has raised the same concerns with the U.S. State Department when he was Defense Secretary during the Marcos administration.
"The Mutual Defense Treaty is vague. The treaty area of the Mutual Defense agreement is the Pacific area. Ang sabi ng Amerika [America said,] that is the South China Sea, that is not the Pacific area," Enrile said.
For now, the only thing that the Philippines can do is to negotiate with China, he said.
"We cannot go to war. Are we willing to lose 10 million people?" Enrile said. "Are we willing to lose all our people, our lives in a war that we can never win?"