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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

China and Taiwan pressure for territorial negotiations may be part of strategy for waters east of Luzon.

Photo Source: National Mapping and Resource Information Authority
Photo Source: National Mapping and Resource Information Authority

Notice how the troubles with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), their Hong Kong, and Taiwan’s Republic of China (ROC) all heated up this year – the year that explorations start at the Benham Rise?  Recall that the underwater plateau is a 13-million hectare expanse that is potentially  rich in natural gas—and where there is gas, there usually is oil.

The Philippines won claim over the Benham Rise last year, having the UN recognize it as part of Philippine territory under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—the same convention now being tested in disputes and offered as grounds for shared fishing rights with both the PRC and ROC.

It increases the country’s previous 30-million hectare territory by a significant 43 percent and translates into a potential source for untold billions of watts of new energy.  And it lies to the Northeast of Luzon, to the right and near the top of the country on a standard up-is-north map, separated from waters claimed by the PRC on the left but touching seas to the North recently reasserted as an overlapping Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by the ROC.

Many have been surprised, experts and laymen alike, by the escalation of the Taiwan spat into an issue that can be resolved, the ROC offers, by settlement of its claim of EEZ overlaps that extend even up to a point just East of Batanes, the Philippines’ northernmost province.  The brow-beating that the country is getting from Taiwan cannot just be the ruling Kuomintang’s way of pandering to coastal provinces where anti-Philippine sentiment runs the highest, provinces they lost to the opposing Democratic Progressive Party both in 2008 and 2012.  No, not when you consider ROC President Ma’s, and by extension, his government’s, drive for eventual reunification with the PRC.

The mainland alone, even with historical claims much contested within the region, cannot establish a footprint over the Benham Rise, not with the Philippines in its way and keeping the PRC’s reach within the South China Sea.  But with Taiwan as a stepping stone, almost literally, a reunified China would have a presence from which it could reach around the Philippines and assert a counter-claim for the Benham Rise.  In turn, if there was ever a way to strengthen Taiwan’s position at negotiations for reunification, this notional access to resource-rich seas just a ways from its coast, this first step in planting a foothold on the Benham Rise, would be it.

The Philippines does not have the technology or the industry to explore nor exploit the Benham Rise on its own. This presents as both carrot and stick in the equation.  The country’s limitations open it to partnerships with foreign interests, offering opportunities for shared exploitation of the underwater plateau.  Any country with resource exploitation industries can bid for concessions—countries like the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Malaysia, and yes, also China.

But among these countries there is one that China may perceive as having the best hand.  And that would be the US. America has been the greatest proponent of oil concessions, having made these wildly profitable for them and Saudi Arabia both. Partnership with America did not just result in US bases in the Arab state, it made Saudi Arabia’s military forces among the best equipped and best trained in the Middle East.  And, in contrast to the Subic and Clark bases that were ultimately seen as infringements on the country’s sovereignty, there is no need to argue that Saudi-like stature would put the Philippines on better footing with America while the superpower again has its back.

And finally, while America’s status as a superpower may have waned after the Budget Sequestration early this year and even its recent admission of inevitable delays in the Afghanistan Drawdown (may have waned enough for Taiwan to risk burning bridges with its old ally and hint at finally rejoining the mainland), the Pacific Pivot also looms, threatening China with increased US presence in Asia.  The Benham Rise can be both justifiable cause and sufficient means for sustaining a renewed and stronger presence in Asia, ground zero for new US interests in the region.  All these would make it very beneficial to China, and to a wooing Taiwan, to turn the Philippines’ new territory into a flashpoint, creating friction to hinder America from re-entry, and would make this as good a time as any to pick a fight with the US.

US President Obama and PRC President Jinping will be meeting this month for an informal summit in California.  It’s the first meeting of its kind in over four decades.  If a discussion of these matters becomes part of their agenda, if the US asserts intent to develop new economic interests in common with the Philippines, it could very well become a development that is in the developing nation’s best interests.

3 responses to “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”

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