Duterte open to joint exploration with China in West PH Sea

MANILA, Philippines – Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said if elected president, he is willing to share the natural resources of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) with China if that will settle the maritime dispute between the Asian giant and the Philippines.

Duterte's stand, made at an elections forum on Thursday, February 4, is the same as that of United Nationalist Alliance standard-bearer Vice President Jejomar Binay, and contrary to the position taken by the Aquino administration, which has sought international arbitration on the dispute.

“We cannot defeat you (China). We will be pulverized if we go to war. So I will just tell them, 'If you want to talk, let’s talk. Or you might just want to open this as a mutual corridor and I will be willing to talk to you if there is oil and gas. Let us do it joint exploration,'” he said.

The Philippines is pursuing an arbitration case before a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands, something Beijing has refused to join. (READ: Philippines: China to build Berlin Wall of the Sea)

The Philippines asserts that large areas of the West Philippine Sea fall within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, where it has the exclusive rights to fish and explore resources.

Dead end?

The situation appears to be a dead end for Duterte.

“It has created a hiatus. The talks are not moving and it is in still waters. And China is adding structures day to day. Something has to give there,” he said.

If the arbitration case drags on for too long, Duterte said, “Give me something like two to 3 years – if nothing is happening and China will say, ‘Are you ready to talk?’ and I say, ‘I am.’”

Duterte's pronouncement is consistent with his earlier statement that he prefers to pursue bilateral talks with China to resolve the dispute – the preferred track of China, which has rejected the involvement of any third party. 

It was the same position taken by the Arroyo administration, which entered into a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking with China and Vietnam. Under the JMSU, the 3 countries agreed, through their national oil corporations, to conduct joint explorations of the disputed South China Sea.

In a Newsbreak report in 2008, legal experts said then that the government “effectively derogated the Philippines' sovereignty over the marine resources around the province of Palawan” because of the joint exploration. (READ: Why China prefers Arroyo to Aquino)

No compromise

But Duterte's willingness to engage with China does not mean he will compromise the Philippine claim over the West Philippine Sea.

He said when talking with China, he will set a “margin” he will not cross.

“I cannot talk beyond this margin. And my predicate, whether you believe it or not, I’m not forcing you to believe, what you have built there is within our territory. It is illegal," he said.

The statement was received with cheers and applause by the crowd, a gathering of entrepreneurs, students, and corporate leaders.

It comes two days after Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua made an indirect call to the Philippines to be "flexible and intelligent" in its bilateral relations with China.

Reservations on foreign troops in PH

Duterte was also asked about his stance on anotherforeign policy issue: the controversial PH-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which allows visiting troops from the United States to use Philippine military bases as strategic regrouping and training points.

In return, the Philippine military gets assistance in personnel training and equipment from the US, seen as crucial in view of rising tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

Duterte said that while he has “reservations about the presence of foreign troops,” he is bound to respect the Supreme Court’s decision that the EDCA is not unconstitutional.

However, he emphasized that he will closely monitor the EDCA’s implementation to ensure foreign troops stay within the limit of the agreement.

“We will not allow the building of structures,” he said. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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