Philippine Lawmakers Want Spratly Oil Search Stopped

MANILA (AP via Dow Jones Newswires), May 22, 2008

Left-wing legislators asked the Philippine Supreme Court on Wednesday to order an immediate halt to a scientific study by the state oil companies of China, Vietnam and the Philippines in the disputed Spratly islands.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and three of her Cabinet members committed "treachery of the highest order" and a "betrayal of paramount proportions" by allowing the three-year seismic study, the six legislators said in a joint petition.

Given the extent of the study, which allegedly encompasses disputed Spratly waters in the South China Sea and Philippine territorial waters, "the state compromises and bargains away its national economy and patrimony, national sovereignty," they said.

"It's a sellout," said Rep. Satur Ocampo, one of the petitioners.

He said the agreement to undertake the study could weaken the Philippines' claim to the Spratlys archipelago, which includes rich fishing grounds, straddles the world's busiest shipping lanes and is believed to sit atop vast deposits of oil and gas. Aside from China, the Philippines and Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also claim all or parts of the remote islands.

The petitioners claim the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking violates the Philippine Constitution, which allows only the Manila government to explore and exploit natural resources within its territory. The government also can undertake explorations with companies that are at least 60% owned by Filipinos, they said.

The seismic study, part of oil exploration, is being undertaken by Philippine National Oil Co., China National Offshore Oil Corp. and Vietnam Oil and Gas Corp. The three governments have not said whether any sign of oil or gas has been found in the sprawling area. The study is to end next month.

The lawmakers belatedly acted to stop the joint study because it only caught the public's attention in recent months.

Opposition lawmakers claim Arroyo's government agreed to the study in exchange for huge Chinese loans for allegedly overpriced projects that witnesses have told the Senate involved kickbacks to officials.

The government, while denying any irregularities, has refused to make the agreement public. Arroyo's aides have said the study is part of efforts by Spratlys claimants to harness the region's potential resources through peaceful joint undertakings.

The archipelago is regarded a potential flashpoint for conflict in Asia. The battle for ownership of the region has settled into an uneasy standoff since the last fighting, involving China and Vietnam, killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988.

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