MANILA - The Philippines may jointly explore the West Philippine Sea with China provided that the 2 countries agree on a treaty framework, a maritime expert said Tuesday.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said a treaty is the only way for the 2 countries to be bound by rules on joint exploration.
"The treaty must have its own implementing law because this will be entirely different from the existing contract system," Batongbacal told ANC's Early Edition.
A clause should be placed in the treaty to ensure that the joint exploration will not affect Manila's legal claims in the disputed waters, he said.
"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 said.
"It should not have any legal effects, especially on the arbitration award," he added.
The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, where Beijing has asserted expansive claims and fortified artificial islands.
An international court in July 2016 had ruled in favor of the Philippines, invalidating China's nine-dash line claim in the disputed waters.
Beijing, however, has continued to ignore Manila's arbitration victory, asserting indisputable sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich waters.
Malacañang had previously said the Philippines was considering 2 areas in the disputed sea for possible joint exploration with China: SC 57, which covers offshore northwest Palawan; and SC 72, which covers Reed Bank, a large table mount off Palawan being claimed by China.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the 2 countries must first reach a "compromise" before proceeding with a joint exploration deal.
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.