PRESIDENT Duterte said the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration which favored the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China should be “ignored” and set aside if the two countries will pursue a joint exploration in the disputed South China Sea.
The President, in a press conference in Malacañang on Tuesday night, was relating what Chinese President Xi Jinping told him during their meeting in China last month. He did not say if he agreed with Xi.
Any agreement to forget the arbitral award and team up with China would be a major setback to other claimants to the South China Sea, especially Vietnam and Malaysia, which like the Philippines have experienced repeated challenges from China’s coast guard inside their exclusive economic zones. The other claimants are Indonesia and Brunei.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did not give specifics at a briefing on Wednesday on the exchange between the presidents, but said Xi noted that cooperation would yield greater progress in exploiting the sea’s resources.
The joint exploration will be at the Recto Bank, also known as the Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The arbitral ruling has recognized Reed Bank as part of the Philippines’ continental shelf and exclusive economic zone. But exploration in the area was put on hold in 2012 after then president Benigno Aquino issued an order freezing all exploration activities in disputed areas.
Hua said Duterte had expressed willingness to hasten maritime oil and gas exploration and development cooperation between China and the Philippines. With regard to some “specific situations,” working groups between the two sides would consult closely, she said.
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 does not recognize the ruling.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin yesterday said a preliminary agreement between China and the Philippines would avoid stating which country was entitled to the gas.
“It’s very clear – no legal position is compromised if we enter into this agreement,” Locsin said in an interview with ANC television.
He said putting aside the arbitration case was immaterial, because an international court had already made its decision.
“It’s final and binding,” he added.
Duterte said Xi told him that if the Philippines ignores the ruling of the Netherlands-based court, China would agree to a 60-40 sharing in whatever would be collected in a joint venture to explore and develop gas deposits at disputed areas within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“Set aside your claim. Then allow everybody connected with the Chinese companies. They want to explore and if there is something, sabi nila (they said), ‘we would be gracious enough to give you 60 percent.’ Forty lang ang kanila (they only get 40). That is the promise of Xi Jinping,” Duterte said.
He did not say if he agreed to Xi’s offer but said the EEZ issue is part of the arbitral ruling.
“Iyang (that) exclusive economic zone is part of the arbitral ruling which we will ignore to come up with an economic activity,” he added.
The President also maintained that the disputed area is “ours,” and the Philippines will not abandon its claims.
Locsin said a memorandum on the joint exploration “makes it unnecessary to set aside the ruling of the arbitral tribunal.”
He explained that the terms of reference for the possible joint exploration is very clear in that “no legal position of either side is compromised” when they enter into the agreement.
“It cannot be set aside. What the arbitral award did is that it put the award beyond the reach of compromise. In other words, I don’t care if the Filipino people want to set it aside. No, it is theirs,” he added.
Locsin also said the joint exploration agreement would cover only “three or four areas” with service contracts and not those areas proposed by China, which he added is well within Philippine territory.
“If the area chosen is a disputed area, but there is no service contract, then it’s still the same, the memorandum of agreement prevails,” Locsin said.
Locsin also said a under the memorandum of understanding signed last year, a steering committee led by the respective foreign ministers of each country, with energy ministers serving as vice chairmen, would be formed.
Locsin said the steering committee would be “responsible for negotiating and agreeing on the cooperation agreements already between real parties.” – With Ashzel Hachero and Reuters