By Eric Watkins
LOS ANGELES, June 7 – The months-long standoff between Beijing and Manila over a section of the possibly oil- and gas-rich South China Sea took an unusual turn this week as a Chinese basketball team called off a visit to the Philippines.
“We received an e-mail from the vice general manager of Shanghai Sharks, Mr. Andy Qian. They requested for the postponement of the event to a later date,” said Michelle Balunan, a spokesperson of the Philippine Sports Commission.
Balunan said the Shanghai Sharks, who were scheduled to play two games in Manila this month, asked for an indefinite postponement, saying the Chinese players’ did not have time to obtain passports before the June 26-July 1 visit.
The Philippine Sports Commission found that explanation surprising as the Chinese side had more than enough time to obtain the necessary papers, Balunan said.
But it really should not comes as a major surprise, serving as the latest round in a battle between Beijing and Manila which has been going on since March, with both sides sending warships into the waters of the Scarborough Shoal, about 140 miles east of Zambales on the Philippines’ Luzon island.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration acknowledges that the South China Sea is rich in natural resources such as oil and natural gas, but it says that no one knows exactly how much oil and gas might be under these turbulent waters.
EIA cites a range of estimates for the region’s oil reserves from a high of 213 billion barrels (bbl), according to Chinese authorities, to a low of 28 billion bbl, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Either way, that represents a considerable amount of oil for a region where oil demand is sharply rising against oil supply. But even more significant is EIA’s observation that natural gas might be “the most abundant hydrocarbon resource” in the South China Sea.
Up to now, though, no one really knows just what’s beneath the waves off the Philippines as political tensions – along with occasional gunboats – have kept explorers largely at bay.
That was certainly true a year ago when two Chinese vessels threatened to ram a survey ship hired by Forum Energy PLC, which has since announced geological evidence that “supports the case to proceed with the drilling program.”
Even such an announcement is enough to create excitement in the region and not a little tension. In fact, analysts suggest that further exploratory drilling in the region off the Philippines could spark a military crisis.
Evidence of the high feelings emerged last week when China expressed concern over remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that Beijing’s claim in the South China Sea exceeds what is permitted under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In response, China advised the U.S. to keep out of the debate.
“On the issue of the South China Sea, non-claimant countries and countries outside the region have adopted a position of not getting involved in territorial disputes,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei.
“On this important prerequisite and foundation, the Chinese side has consistently committed to safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Hong said, citing “our efforts to pursue dispute settlement through negotiations with countries directly concerned.”
But no one’s waiting around to see just what China will do – especially not the Philippines, which has authorized new military arrangements with the United States and Australia.
EXERCISES AND INTEROPERABILITY
American troops, warships and aircraft can once again use their former naval and air facilities in Subic, Zambales and in Clark Field in Pampanga as long as they have prior clearance from the Philippine government, according to Defense Undersecretary for defense affairs Honorio Azcueta.
“They can come here provided they have prior coordination from the government,” Azcueta said after his meeting on June 4 with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Asked if U.S. troops as well as warships and fighter planes would be allowed access to their former naval base in Subic Bay, Azcueta said: “That’s what we want… increase in exercises and interoperability.”
Meanwhile, the Philippine Senate has approved the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia, which would allow Canberra’s military forces to operate in the Philippines.
SOFVA “provides for enhanced bilateral defense and military cooperation” between the Philippines and Australia, said Senator Loren Legarda, who sponsored the legislation. “SOVFA is intended to enhance cooperation on maritime terrorism and other security threats,” she said.
Maybe that’s why those Chinese Sharks won’t be cruising the Philippines this week.
© Glamma Productions Inc. 2012