Manila and Beijing have formed a joint inter-governmental body to coordinate an exploration deal for tapping energy resources in the South China Sea, Philippine officials announced Wednesday, in a move that President Rodrigo Duterte earlier had said could ease tensions in the disputed waters.
Enrique Manalo, the Philippine undersecretary for policy at the Department of Foreign Affairs, and Chinese vice foreign minister Luo Zhaohui convened in Beijing on Monday for the first official meeting of the “Oil and Gas Development Inter-Governmental Joint Steering Committee” for exploring and developing energy projects in the sea region.
“[B]oth sides confirmed the official establishment” of the committee, said a statement issued by the department on Wednesday.
“The Committee had a candid, in-depth and friendly exchange on cooperation arrangements under the memorandum of agreement and agreed to further push forward communication and coordination on oil and gas development, with a view to achieving progress,” the statement added.
Both sides agreed to meet again early next year at a date yet to be determined, it said.
The establishment of the body came two months after President Duterte said Chinese leader Xi Jinping had promised him a 60-40 deal in favor of Manila in any agreement for joint exploration of the potentially mineral-rich sea region. But Duterte said this offer was made was on condition that he disregard a 2016 international arbitral verdict on the South China Sea that ruled in favor of Manila.
Duterte said Xi had told him to “set aside your claim” and allow Chinese firms in to explore the region and then share whatever resources they found.
Philippine nationalist groups, led by Vice President Leni Robredo, were angered by Duterte’s revelation and called on Beijing to recognize Manila’s sovereignty before any deal could commence.
Robredo, citing the Philippines’ victory before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, claimed that China must first recognize the Philippines’ ownership and sovereignty over the seas covered by the deal.
“That should be one of our most basic demands: That before we enter into any contract with them, they recognize first out ownership and sovereignty over those areas,” Robredo had said.
However, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. slammed Robredo’s comments, saying the country needed the oil in the disputed waters and not China.
“China doesn’t need our oil and gas. We do. And China is the only one offering to help develop it,” Locsin said in a message posted on Twitter.
“A Filipino discovered humongous oil and gas just offshore Beijing. It’s rolling in minerals. Sooooooooooooo….,” he added.
The exploration of the contested maritime region was among 29 vaguely worded bilateral deals signed between the Chinese and Philippine governments when Xi visited Manila in November 2018.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have overlapping territorial claims to the sea, which is vital to international shipping and trade.
Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.