MANILA — The Philippines sought yesterday to reassure South-east Asian neighbours about its proposal to partner with Beijing on oil exploration in the disputed South China Sea, promising to consult them on any plans.
President Rodrigo Duterte has softened his predecessor’s policy opposing China’s claims — which expands to nearly the entire sea — causing concern among neighbouring South-east Asian countries, some of whom are also claimant states.
On Monday, Mr Duterte said his government was in talks with China over joint drilling for natural resources in the sea, reversing years of tensions.
But Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said yesterday that Manila would consult its nine fellow Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) member states about the proposal.
“It will not be a unilateral action from the Philippines because the premise of the president is peace and stability, and unilateral action by anybody leads to destabilisation,” he told reporters. “There will also have to be consultations with the whole (of) Asean because we want to keep the stability there.”
Mr Duterte, 72, has played down his country’s maritime dispute with China in favour of billions of dollars in trade and investment from Beijing.
He has also refused to use as leverage a United Nations-backed tribunal’s ruling last year which rejected Beijing’s claims to most of the sea.
His predecessor Benigno Aquino had sought the ruling and in 2015 suspended Philippine exploration activities at Reed Bank, where Manila’s claims overlap those of China.
Under Mr Aquino, the Philippines challenged China through legal and diplomatic avenues, including Asean meetings.
He rallied the grouping to put up a united front against Beijing’s reclamation and island-building activities in the sea — a policy that Mr Duterte reversed.
At an April summit, Asean under Mr Duterte’s chairmanship released a statement that failed to condemn China’s push to control most of the sea.
In May, Asean and China agreed to a framework for a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, an important first step towards managing tensions in the region.
The South China Sea issue will be on the agenda as Mr Cayetano meets his Asean counterparts in Manila next week.
Earlier this week, Beijing urged a halt to oil drilling in a disputed part of the South China Sea, where Spanish oil company Repsol had been operating in cooperation with Hanoi.
China is said to have threatened to attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if drilling continued.
Mr Cayetano refused to say if the joint China-Philippines oil and gas exploration would be in specific areas of the sea also claimed by Asean members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Negotiations for a joint exploration had “peaked” during Mr Duterte’s visit to Beijing in May when he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he intended to drill for oil in the South China Sea, according to him.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, visiting Manila on Tuesday, said Beijing was open to joint development.
He also called on Asean to “say no” to outside forces seeking to interfere in the South China Sea dispute, in an apparent swipe at the United States.
Washington has repeatedly sent warships close to Chinese-occupied islands in the sea in recent years, triggering angry responses from Beijing. AGENCIES