• An AMTI author said the Philippines should also explore energy fields at Recto Bank
  • Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and China all have exploratory projects in disputed waters
  • The Philippines brief exploration of Recto Bank shut down due to challenges from Chinese Coast Guard

The Philippine government has been urged to resume oil and gas exploration projects in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) as other claimants within China's nine-dash line have either been drilling in the disputed waters or have recently announced new projects in the area.

The Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said in a report last week that the Philippines remained the only claimant within China's nine-dash line that has not been pursuing energy exploration in the disputed territory.

"The Philippines continues to suspend all oil and gas projects in disputed waters of the South China Sea, which has been policy since 2014. Manila briefly permitted exploration at Reed Bank last spring, but quickly shut it down amid challenges from the China Coast Guard (CCG)," the AMTI said in its report.

"The Philippines should be asking itself if all the neighbors stood up to CCG (Chinese Coast Guard) harassment in recent years and successfully developed new fields, why can't it do the same at Reed Bank?" said Gregory Poling, an author at the AMTI, the Inquirer reported.

Reed Bank, which the Philippines calls Recto Bank, is where the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) intercepted a Vietnamese-flagged fishing boat in February.

The Philippine-based PXP energy Corp and its subsidiary Forum Energy were also among those who called for the resumption of the projects.

China has several projects in the area, including a new gas field exploration in the Yinggehai Basin, which is part of a dispute with Vietnam. Vietnam also has its development project in the Nam Con Son Basin, as per AMTI.

Indonesia is developing the Tuna gas field, and Malaysia continues to drill in blocks SK306 and SK410B, the latter being the site of confrontations between the CCG and the Royal Malaysian Navy.

Poling said the increasing tensions in the area over exploratory activities should not be an excuse for the Philippines in exploring possibilities within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), according to the Inquirer.

Poling's statements came as the Chinese Embassy in Manila warned that the United States' added access to military bases in the country will "seriously" endanger regional stability.

There have been concerns that even with the addition of new U.S. military sites in the Philippines, China will continue increasing its presence in disputed areas.

The Chinese Embassy said in a statement that the new sites were being added under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement "to encircle and contain China through its military alliance with this country."

The embassy added that the use was aiming "to stir up trouble in the South China Sea and ganging up with its allies," thus resulting in "heightened tension" in the disputed territory.

China has said it remains "committed" to exploring possible joint exploration activities with the Philippines in the WPS. On the other hand, Philippine President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. said his country had the right to explore within the Philippines' EEZ regardless of a joint deal.

Philippine Coast Guard flyby over the South China Sea
A photo from the PCG of the West Philippine Sea. Reuters