Manila can legally enter into a deal offered by the Chinese for joint exploration of South China Sea areas that lie within exclusive territorial limits of the Philippines, a senior Filipino government official said Thursday.
But China must “comply with the Philippine Constitution,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said, emphasizing the move would not mean that Manila was automatically recognizing Beijing’s “sovereign claims over the disputed territory.”
Roque was commenting on a remark by President Rodrigo Duterte, who said Wednesday that the Chinese had offered Manila a “joint exploration” deal in the maritime area.
The president likened such a set-up to “co-ownership,” but did not elaborate on whether the deal would apply to natural resources available in disputed parts.
“That’s better than fighting,” Duterte said, according to transcripts released by the presidential palace.
Roque said Duterte may simply have wanted to explain the “joint exploration and exploitation” that Filipinos and Chinese could undertake in the area.
“Now, having said that, you know, ownership is not material here because, really, the areas that may be subjected to joint development is EEZ – exclusive economic zone – where we only exercise sovereign rights,” Roque said.
Roque cited a 2004 case when the Supreme Court allowed explorations with foreign entities, provided that the president had signed off on these and Congress had acted on them.
A joint exploration remained a “practical solution” to tapping resources in disputed areas of the sea without raising problems with a claimant country, he said.
“They will jointly develop and explore for resources. That’s it. It’s a joint undertaking. But we’re not talking of a title here,” Roque said, adding that in any case, any such deal would go through the approval process in Congress.
“Let’s not speculate what will happen. I think that’s a decision, that it will be to the best of our national interest to benefit from the resources in the disputed area, but there’s no meeting of the minds as of yet,” he added.
Contending territorial claims
China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. The region is also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, and there have been previous clashes in the area.
On Thursday, Gary Alejano, an opposition member of the House of Representatives, said the Philippine Supreme Court should review a joint marine seismic undertaking (JMSU) signed between Manila and claimants China and Vietnam in 2005, because President Duterte was using this as a template for a fresh joint initiative.
The court had questioned the 2005 agreement but never issued a decision on its legality.
“A final ruling of the Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of the JMSU would be most vital in determining the Philippines’ foreign policy direction, its subsequent dealings with China and any foreign states seeking to partner for maritime exploration resources exploitation,” Alejano said.
He noted that the administration was pushing the joint exploration deal “more vehemently,” despite China’s increased efforts to militarize the region.
Sino-Philippine relations under Duterte
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines over China, saying there was no legal basis for Beijing to claim “historical rights” in the sea region.
International law experts worldwide hailed the ruling, which angered China. Beijing rejected the ruling and defiantly launched a building spree in territories it already controlled in the sea.
Duterte, who assumed power in the same month as the ruling, however, made it a point to appease Beijing. He has since undertaken state visits to China and hosted Chinese leaders in Manila’s presidential palace.
Eager to show an improvement in bilateral ties, Duterte last year hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Manila following the annual ASEAN leaders’ summit, which the Philippines hosted.
He called Li’s visit a “momentous occasion” that marked a “positive turnaround and vigorous momentum” in bilateral ties.