Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s statement this week in which he appeared to side with China over a proposed joint exploration of the South China Sea was “reckless,” Vice President Leni Robredo said Thursday.
It was “extremely irresponsible” of Duterte to say that Chinese leader Xi Jinping, during their talks in Beijing last month, had agreed to jointly develop the disputed sea region if Manila ignored an international court’s ruling that invalidated Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the waterway, Robredo said.
“Entering into any agreement should not come at the expense of upholding our rights to the West Philippine Sea,” Robredo said in a statement, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
“Our own constitution already grants the state ample authority to enter into agreements with foreign entities for exploration and development of oil and gas resources,” she said. “Why then was this reckless pronouncement made?”
Robredo, the head of the opposition, is the second highest official in the Philippines. She is next in line to Duterte, who won the presidency three years ago.
On Tuesday, Duterte told reporters that he had discussions with Xi, saying that the Chinese leader had promised him a 60-40 deal in favor of the Philippines. But, according to the Philippine president, Xi urged him to disregard a 2016 ruling by the International Court of Arbitration.
Duterte said Xi had asked him to “set aside your claim,” allow Chinese firms in to explore the region and then share whatever resources they found.
Robredo on Thursday also accused Duterte of scare mongering and repeatedly saying in public that the country only had two choices: “capitulation or conflict.”
“Open warfare is far from the sole measure of asserting our rights to the EEZ (exclusive economic zone),” said Robredo, whom Duterte has sidelined in official functions.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims to the mineral-rich waterway that straddles vital international shipping lanes.
While saying that it adheres to a peaceful resolution of the dispute, Beijing has ignored its smaller neighbors and continued to expand its existing territories and has also installed missiles capable of hitting the Philippines within minutes, Filipino officials said.
On Thursday, Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, tried to explain the president’s statement, insisting that it did not mean the government would abandon its territorial claim in the sea.
“Negotiations are ongoing, peacefully,” Panelo told a news conference. “In other words, we are still at an impasse. So let’s talk about other things like this joint exploration.”
Jojo Riñoza contributed to this report from Manila.