China and the Philippines are discussing joint mineral exploration in the South China Sea despite an ongoing territorial conflict over the strategic waterway, Manila's foreign secretary said Friday.
The two countries, long embroiled in a dispute over their competing claims to the area, are hoping talks will open the door for them to jointly tap its resources, Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said.
"We are pushing it aggressively because we need it," Cayetano told reporters, adding the countries would each form a working group to explore options for joint exploration.
"Then we will find a framework under our constitution that will allow us... joint exploration," he said.
"We both want it."
The South China Sea is a major trading route and fishing ground believed to have vast mineral resources, and is also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the area but in 2016 a UN-backed tribunal acting on a case brought by then-Philippine leader Benigno Aquino rejected its claims.
Current president Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in mid-2016, has since alarmed defense analysts and lawyers by down-playing the Philippine claim and largely setting aside the ruling so as to accommodate China -- which is promising military and economic aid.
But on Friday Cayetano said the Philippines would consult with "international legal experts" to make sure any accord would not hurt Philippine sovereign rights.
"Whatever we do, it will not only (be) in accordance with Philippine law but also the UNCLOS," referring to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
He stressed the talks would only cover exploration, not actual development.
"Right now, we have not (been) discussing developments. We are discussing exploration first. What's the use of the debate whether or not the constitution allows a joint development if we don't know if there is anything we can harvest," he said.
As a model for the possible accord, Cayetano cited a tripartite deal between the oil companies of the Philippines, Vietnam and China for joint exploration of part of the South China Sea that was signed under the government of then-president Gloria Arroyo in 2005.
However, an opposition group challenged the tripartite deal's legality in the Supreme Court in 2008 and a decision is still pending.