Palace: Set aside dispute with China, jointly explore S. China Sea now

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 06 2018 02:52 PM

China Coast Guard vessels patrol past Philippine fishing boats at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, April 5, 2017. Erik De Castro, Reuters/File

MANILA - Malacañang on Tuesday said the Philippines and China should set aside their dispute over the South China Sea and first allow joint exploration of the resource-rich waters.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque defended anew Manila’s push for joint exploration with China in the South China Sea, even as critics warned this could jeopardize a 2016 arbitration ruling which had invalidated Beijing’s expansive claim to the sea.

Roque said the government is now looking at resuming talks with China for a possible exploration at South China Sea’s Recto Bank (Reed Bank), covered by Service Contract 72.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio earlier said China must first recognize the Philippines’ rights to its 200-nautical mile (370-km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) before any joint exploration could proceed.

Roque, however, said this is not necessary, acknowledging that China remains firm on its claims to the sea despite the international tribunal's ruling. 

“Sa [Service Contract] 72, sa akin hindi kailangan kasi itong joint exploration eh by way of compromise na huwag na nating pag-awayan muna ang issue kung sino ang may sovereign rights d'yan, makinabang muna tayo,” Roque said in a news conference.

President Rodrigo Duterte has been criticized for supposedly going soft on China and refusing to flaunt the arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines.

Duterte has chosen to set aside the ruling for now in pursuit of improved economic ties with China, the world’s second-largest economy.

Amid criticism of the government’s policy on China, Roque gave the assurance that the Philippines is not giving up on its claims to the South China Sea. 

In a television interview, he noted that whatever activities China does on the sea cannot erase the fact that a United Nations-backed tribunal ruled that Manila has sole jurisdiction to exploit resources within its EEZ.

China has ignored the ruling, pursuing instead with its militarization activities in the waters. 

Meanwhile, Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said a clause should be placed in the joint exploration treaty to ensure that the activity would not affect Manila's legal claims to the disputed waters.

"The most important part that must be in the treaty is the fact that our going into joint development or exploration of that area should be without prejudice to the claim," Batongbacal told ANC.

"It should not have any legal effects, especially on the arbitration award," he added.

Batongbacal also warned that the Philippines should be highly vigilant in entering into a joint exploration agreement with China since Manila would be first to feel any environmental impact.

"Any problems would be on us primarily. We need to have high standards. We should have the final say. We will be the first ones hit from environmental impact," he said.