Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo on Thursday said the Philippines and China are set to resume talks on a possible joint venture for oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea.
Manalo’s announcement came as the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) reported the presence of 20 Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in the waters around Sabina and Ayungin Shoals, and Pag-asa Island in Palawan.
The ships, spotted by the BRP Malapascua during a maritime patrol in the Kalayaan Island Group from March 16 to 21, included two Chinese Coast Guard vessels and a People’s Liberation Army Navy ship.
The PCG said that it issued multiple radio challenges to the vessels but got no response.
On March 21, China Coast Guard vessel 5201 shadowed BRP Malapascua as it was patrolling Ayungin Shoal.
The incident has been reported to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), the PCG said.
Manalo said the exploratory talks would begin on a technical level in about six weeks.
He said it was Beijing that proposed the talks on oil and gas,focusing on the terms of reference.
Manalo said the Philippine government’s position would be guided by the Constitution, which will serve as the guiding principle in the negotiations.
“In any negotiations we undertake on oil and gas, the Philippineposition has always been that we will be guided by the constitutionalrequirements and that’s how we will proceed in the next round,” Manalo said.
In November 2018, the Philippines and China signed a memorandum ofunderstanding (MOU) with both sides agreeing to establish an intergovernmental joint steering committee to look into possible energy cooperation.
The MOU also provides that a working group from each of the countries”will consist of representatives from enterprises authorized by the two governments.”
However, in 2022, during the last months of the Duterte administration, the Philippines ordered the termination of the discussions with China, citing constitutional constraints and issues on the country’s sovereignty.
Reports showed that the West Philippine Sea, particularly near Reed Bank, is rich in natural resources such as oil and gas.
Meanwhile, Manalo said a final agreement on the Code of Conduct (COC)of the South China Sea between China, the Philippines, and other ASEAN countries was still far off.
“There are so many issues to look at here because this concerns how to manage incidents occurring at sea,” he said.
“You need all the countries to agree and that alone takes time. And then of course you have the bigger issues too, and political issues, whether the Code will be legally binding or not we’re not yet there,” Manalo said.
The COC is aimed at preventing future tensions and conflict among the claimant countries in the South China Sea.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is scheduled to attend the ASEAN Summit in Indonesia in May, and preparations are also underway for his state visit to the United States to meet President Joe Biden.