PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday he was open to exploring the South China Sea’s natural resources with rival claimants China and Vietnam, after securing a “windfall” while in Beijing.
Duterte also emphasized he had no immediate plans to pressure China over an international tribunal’s ruling last year that its sweeping claims to most of the sea were unlawful.
“If we can get something there with no hassle at all, why not,” Duterte told reporters when asked about a proposal for jointly exploring the sea with China and Vietnam.
He emphasized, however, that the deal would have to be “fair and balanced.”
Duterte did not mention Malaysia and Brunei, the two other Southeast Asian nations that also have claims to the sea.
The competing claims to the sea, which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits, have for decades made it one of Asia’s potential military flash points.
Beijing’s efforts to cement its claims in the sea in recent years by building artificial islands and expanding a military presence there have added to the tensions.
Duterte, who took office last year, abandoned the policy of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, to forcefully challenge Beijing in diplomatic circles and instead sought to repair bilateral relations.
Duterte has said his decision has earned the Philippines billions of dollars in Chinese investments and aid.
Duterte spoke Tuesday after returning from Beijing, where he had separate meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang on the sidelines of a summit on a global trade infrastructure project.
Duterte praised China’s leaders as “generous” “very liberal” and “sincere.”
Duterte described his trip to Beijing, his second since assuming office, as a “windfall” for the Philippines, saying more Chinese investments or aid had been offered although he gave few details.
Duterte said he told Xi and Li that he would not raise last year’s international tribunal ruling, which was filed by Aquino and deeply angered China.
“We decided that there is a time for me to ask about the ruling but it is not now,” Duterte said.
Xi hailed the “all-round improvement” of relations between the two nations during the forum, calling the Philippines an “important partner” in his Belt and Road infrastructure project.
Chinese and Philippines officials will meet in China on Friday for the first round of bilateral talks on their dispute.
Aquino had avoided direct talks with China for fear of placing the Philippines in a vulnerable negotiating position.
Duterte said he wanted discussions to involve a code of conduct for the sea, which China and Southeast Asian nations have been discussing for some 15 years.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin and Philippine Ambassador Jose Santiago Santa Romana will co-chair the meeting in China’s southern Guizhou province, the Beijing said on Tuesday.
Their talks will follow the 14th meeting on Thursday of senior officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on the implementation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, under then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, entered into an agreement with China and Vietnam in 2005 to jointly study potential oil deposits in the sea.
But the deal collapsed after Filipino politicians questioned its legality. They alleged it infringed on Philippine sovereignty and accused Arroyo of treason.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines was open to buying Chinese arms, including planes, fast boats and drones with the help of a $500 million long-term loan.
But Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto on Tuesday said there was no need to borrow from China and warned the administration against taking the loan being offered by Beijing.
“We must stop relying on foreign suppliers to modernize the military equipment of our armed forces....We should tap our domestic industries for the equipment needed by our policemen and soldiers,” Recto said.
Recto cited the existence of a vibrant local firearms industry which has been exporting its products for many decades now.
“Some of them were licensees of world’s leading gun makers,” he said.
“There are many of them, from boat builders to vehicle manufacturers to firearms and ammunition makers who can step up to the plate once there are firm orders from the government,” Recto said.
“Buy local, create jobs. This should be the new mantra of the government,” he added.
At the same time, a former national security adviser, Roilo Golez, warned against a proposal by Jose de Venecia, special envoy for inter-cultural dialogue, for the Philippines and China to jointly explore the South China Sea.
“Dear Mr. President, please do not listen to JDV [Jose de Venecia] on his proposal for China to explore natural resources in our exclusive economic zone... this JdV proposal is plain one sided for China,” Golez warned.
Golez slammed De Venecia’s suggestion and reminded the former speaker that joint exploration in the country’s exclusive economic zone is prohibited by the law.
Golez also questioned that how the country can have a joint venture with China, which “brings on the table guns and warships.”
University of the Philippines professor and maritime expert Jay Batongbacal added that joint exploration is not allowed by the Constitution and might need a treaty and enabling legislation.
“The devil is in the details. Other countries’ experience in joint development with China has been rather spotty,” Batongbacal said.
“It’s rather risky given previous experiences with China, and those between China and other states,” he added.
He said the government must create terms that will need to be “fair, transparent, reciprocal, and without prejudice to claims.”
“Above all, no recognition of [China’s] nine-dash line claim, nor repudiation of arbitral award,” he said. With Sara Susanne D. Fabunan, Macon Ramos-Araneta and Sandy Araneta
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