MANILA — Vice President Leni Robredo on Thursday said while she is open to working with China as part of an inclusive and independent foreign policy if she is elected President, the West Philippine Sea issue is non-negotiable.
“For China, we will collaborate with them in areas that we have no conflict, such as trade and investments, much like what Vietnam has been doing,” Robredo said during a speech before the Rotary Club of Manila.
“But when it comes to the West Philippine Sea, we cannot deal with them without their recognition of the arbitral ruling,” she added.
Robredo was the first among the presidential contenders the Rotary Club asked to speak on wide-ranging issues, including foreign policy.
The Vice President said one area where China and the Philippines can work together is in joint oil exploration, but the terms have to be clear.
“For example, we only agree to joint oil exploration with them if there is first a recognition of our rights as declared by the arbitral tribunal,” she said.
The vice president is not the first to broach this idea.
Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio previously suggested the deal as a means to enforce the 2013 South China Sea arbitral ruling, amid an ongoing impasse between China and the Philippines.
President Rodrigo Duterte had, for the most part of his term, refused to assert the arbitral ruling, calling it “a piece of paper” at some point and warned of a possibility of going to war with China.
But in late September, Duterte also told the United Nations General Assembly that no "willful disregard" by any country "can diminish" the 5-year-old arbitral award that junked Beijing's sweeping claims to the South China Sea, including parts of Philippines waters.
In 2018 and 2019, Manila and Beijing signed a memorandum of agreement and terms of reference for a service contract agreement for the joint exploration of the oil and gas reserves in the West Philippine Sea.
Instead of favoring one country, Robredo said it would be beneficial for the Philippines to “have an inclusive and independent foreign policy.”
“We want to create better ties, especially in the areas of protection of our citizens, increasing exports, bolstering trade, military and intelligence capabilities, and of course, protecting the West Philippine Sea,” said Robredo.
She said the Philippines must strengthen diplomatic relations with other allies, including its Southeast Asian neighbors, the European Union, Great Britain, Australia, and others.
The government, she added, must “do all we can to cement bilateral agreements” in countries that host a large concentration of Filipino workers to ensure their protection and satisfactory labor conditions.
Robredo also said she would continue strengthening the Philippines’ relationship with its oldest ally the United States, given the number of Filipinos living and working there.
“We will be open to working with everyone so long as it is, of course, to the best interest of the Filipino people,” she said.