MANILA, Philippines — The lifting of the moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea is possible, President Rodrigo Duterte said, even as he stressed that the country’s interest would be the main consideration when he decides on the matter.
The Philippines and China have agreed to cooperate on oil and gas exploration and exploitation during the official visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Manila last week.
In a joint statement, the two countries said they may “explore means to cooperate with each other in other possible maritime activities including maritime oil and gas exploration and exploitation” in accordance with their national laws and regulations and the international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The joint statement was issued despite the Philippines’ moratorium on all exploration and drilling works in the South China Sea because of tensions arising from the maritime dispute.
Asked on Tuesday if the joint statement would pave way to the lifting of the moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, Duterte said: “It’s one of the possibilities that will happen or can happen or will happen in South China Sea.”
Duterte said he would only lift the moratorium if it serves the “higher interest” of the Philippines.
“I will only lift it when I think the higher interest of the Philippines is served. I cannot just do that until such time that we would have reached that level where the highest interest of the country and that is my Republic of the Philippines will be subserved,” the president said.
Duterte noted that aside from the Philippines and China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taipei also have claims in the disputed region. Brunei is also a claimant in the dispute.
“It’s an area too big. But I think the players there would really be the ASEAN members who are also claimants. (The claims are) overlapping,” he added.
“Ours is one aspect of the problem. The totality of the problem is that almost all claimants are within the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighborhood,” he said.
Duterte said a joint exploration may cover valuable minerals and ores but not black sand.
The moratorium was issued by the Aquino administration and covered service contracts 72 in Recto Bank, a gas-rich area 80 nautical miles from Palawan and 75 in northwest Palawan.