MANILA: The Philippines is willing to share natural resources with Beijing in contested South China Sea areas even if it wins a legal challenge next week, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told AFP Friday.
Yasay said President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration hoped to quickly begin direct talks with China following Tuesday’s verdict, with the negotiations to cover jointly exploiting natural gas reserves and fishing grounds within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“We can even have the objective of seeing how we can jointly explore this territory: how we can utilise and benefit mutually from the utilisation of the resources in this exclusive economic zone where claims are overlapping,” Yasay told AFP in an interview.
The Philippines, under Benigno Aquino’s previous administration, filed in 2013 a legal challenge with a UN-backed tribunal in The Hague contesting China’s claims to nearly all of the strategically vital sea.
China’s claims reach almost to the coasts of the Philippines and some other Southeast Asian nations, and it has in recent years built giant artificial islands in the disputed areas to enforce what it says are its indisputable sovereign rights.
The Philippines’ case enraged China, which repeatedly vowed to ignore the tribunal’s ruling and is currently holding military drills in the northern part of the sea as a show of force.
Duterte, who took office on June 30, has adopted a more conciliatory approach to China than Aquino.
The previous president refused to hold direct talks, and likened China’s expansionist efforts in the sea to Nazi Germany’s march on parts of Europe ahead of World War II.
Yasay signalled on Friday that Duterte would be making no such analogies, emphasising his administration would seek to ensure the best possible relations with China.
“I would like to be forward-looking on these matters,” he said when asked to comment on Aquino’s Nazi statement.
“I would like to make sure whatever actions this administration will take, the statements we will be making will be in the pursuit of strengthening our relationship with everybody and will be for the purpose of making sure there will be no stumbling block to our negotiating a peaceful solution to the issue.”
He also said China and the Philippines had agreed not to make any “provocative statements” following the release of the ruling.
Yasay said after the ruling is released, the Philippines would study it closely, discuss it with allies, and then seek to launch talks with China “as soon as possible”.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country’s exclusive economic zone falls within 200 nautical miles of its coast. A nation has sovereign rights to exploit natural resources in that zone.
Fish, drill together
Yasay said the Philippines was open to sharing Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone that China took control of in 2012 and has banned Filipino boats from entering.
“It’s my understanding that in the long course of history, Scarborough Shoal has been the traditional fishing grounds not only for Filipinos but also for Vietnamese, Chinese. We can continue with this arrangement,” he said.
“The resources there are God-given for all and for everyone to enjoy. We can work at joint benefit in so far as using the marine resources in the area.”
Yasay said the Philippines would also consider jointly exploring a natural gas field at Reed Bank, which is similarly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and far from China’s nearest major landmass.
“I think it would be in the pursuit of our national interest to do that and that will be a big step forward if everyone can agree on proceeding on that basis,” Yasay said when asked about jointly developing Reed Bank.
Yasay insisted the Philippines would not concede any of its rights in the sea.
But he said the issue of sovereignty would not be solved for many years, describing it as a “generational issue”, and that rival claimants must in the meantime work cooperatively.
Duterte and Yasay met with China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, on Thursday. Zhao was seen again at the Department of Foreign Affairs on Friday.