MANILA - Malacañang on Thursday downplayed President Rodrigo Duterte’s remark that a possible joint exploration between the Philippines and China in the disputed West Philippine Sea would be akin to a “co-ownership.”
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Duterte could just be trying to simplify the term “joint exploration” and ended up using “co-ownership.”
Roque added that there should be no talk of “ownership” in the first place since the disputed area falls within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile (370-km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in which case the Philippines can only invoke “sovereign rights."
“The President just wanted to explain that joint exploration and exploitation will be undertaken by both Philippine and Chinese nationals," Roque said in a news conference.
"Now having said that, you know, ownership is not material here because really the areas that may be subjected to joint development is [the] EEZ – exclusive economic zone where we only exercise sovereign rights. So let’s not talk about ownership, because sovereign rights is different from title."
Nonetheless, he said the Philippines' entry into a joint exploration deal with China should not mean that Manila would recognize Beijing's claim to the sea.
“Joint exploration is exactly what it is – it’s a practical solution for the Filipinos to utilize natural resources without having to deal with the contentious conflicting claims to territories,” he said.
He is also confident the Philippines would get its fair share if the joint deal pushes through.
“I think so. And as to the applicable law, because this will be pursuant to an agreement between two nations, it will be governed by international law,” he said.
Roque added Duterte did not violate the Constitution by saying the joint exploration is akin to co-ownership.
“How can it be betrayal of public trust when the Supreme Court itself has said it can be done?” he said.
China maintains that the South China Sea falls within its territory, even while a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal invalidated its sweeping claims to the resource-rich waters in 2016.
The tribunal, described by China as “ill-founded,” declared that China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights to its EEZ by building artificial islands, preventing Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing there.
Despite the tribunal’s ruling, China has continued to fortify its military facilities on the artificial islands it built in the Spratlys archipelago within the Philippines’ EEZ.
Duterte has refused to flaunt the ruling in pursuit of improved economic ties with China. Roque, however, said further Chinese reclamation, including one on Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground 124 nautical miles (230 kms) off Zambales province, would be a red line.
The President earlier said he believes China’s actions in the disputed waters are aimed at the United States, Manila’s long-time treaty ally. He said he refuses to antagonize China because the Philippines’ weak military cannot match that of the Asian giant.
JOINT EXPLORATION TALKS ‘MOVING’
Roque, in an interview on ANC, said a joint exploration between Filipino and Chinese companies in the West Philippine Sea is "likely to happen" as talks are "moving forward" under the Duterte administration.
The presidential spokesperson, however, did not identify the companies involved. Such an agreement between private companies is allowed under Philippine law, he said.
"I know they are discussing. They are moving forward and it's likely to happen," Roque said.
"This will now actually entail joint exploration and possible exploitation of natural resources.”
The law also requires that Congress be informed should such an agreement be reached between a Filipino company and a foreign counterpart.
Under the previous administration, Manila's PXP Energy, then known as Philex Petroleum, discussed possible joint exploration with the China National Offshore Oil Corp.
The discussions, however, hit a snag after then President Benigno Aquino III questioned the basis of China's claims before an international arbitration court in 2013, a case that Manila won in July 2016, shortly after he relinquished power to Duterte.