PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte had not agreed to ignore an arbitration court ruling that voided China’s claims to more than 80% of the South China Sea, in exchange for a joint oil and gas exploration of the disputed waterway dangled by its neighbor, his spokesman said yesterday.
“He did not say that the Philippines will drop the claim,” presidential spokesman Salvador S. Panelo told reporters, referring to Mr. Duterte’s discussion with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his recent visit to Beijing. What the president meant was that “the arbitral ruling is still subject to peaceful talks,” he added.
Mr. Panelo said there’s an impasse so people should let the two leaders talk about the planned joint exploration.
Mr. Duterte has said Mr. Xi had told him that if he ignored the 2016 United Nations ruling favoring the Philippines, China would agree to be the junior partner in a joint venture to develop gas deposits at the Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The tribunal in The Hague clarified maritime boundaries and the Philippines’ sovereign entitlements, and in doing so, invalidated China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea. China has rejected the ruling.
The decision came after the Philippines under then President Benigno S.C. Aquino III sued China before the international court.
Mr. Duterte has sought to befriend Mr. Xi, hoping to secure billions of dollars of investments. He has avoided challenging China over its reclamation activities in the South China Sea, including its militarized artificial islands.
Meanwhile, Vice President Maria Leonor G. Robredo said ignoring the arbitral ruling is “profoundly disappointing and extremely irresponsible.”
“Entering into any agreement should not come at the expense of upholding our rights to the West Philippine Sea,” she said, referring to parts of the South China Sea that are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Ms. Robredo said the Constitution allows the government to enter into agreements with foreign entities for exploration and development of oil and gas resources, but these should benefit the people.
“Ultimately, how the president handles the delicate issue of the West Philippine Sea will have implications, not only for the remainder of his term, but for all subsequent administrations,” the vice president said.
“We must take great care in ensuring that we are not trading away the long-term interests of our nation and our children for short-term profit,” she added.
The UN court in 2016 said the Philippines had legal rights to exploit gas deposits that China also claims at the Reed Bank, about 85 miles (140 kilometers) off the Philippine coast.
The Philippines’ only accessible gas resources at the Malampaya fields will run out by 2024. A joint project with China has been talked about for decades, but has gone nowhere due to the competing claims.
Joint activity could be deemed as legitimizing the other side’s claim, or even relinquishing sovereign rights. — V.A.C. Ferreras and A.L. Balinbin