Manila 'willing to share' South China Sea

Activists protesting outside the Chinese consulate in Manila ahead of a UN ruling on the South China Sea. However, the Philippines' leadership has taken a more conciliatory tone, saying it is open to joint use of resources in the sea.
Activists protesting outside the Chinese consulate in Manila ahead of a UN ruling on the South China Sea. However, the Philippines' leadership has taken a more conciliatory tone, saying it is open to joint use of resources in the sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

Philippines open to exploring gas fields and fishing grounds jointly with China

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 has said.

He said President Rodrigo Duterte's administration hoped to quickly begin direct talks with China following Tuesday'sverdict, with the negotiations to cover jointly exploiting natural gas reserves and fishing grounds within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

"We can even have the objective of seeing how we can jointly explore this territory: How we can benefit mutually from the utilisation of the resources in this EEZ where claims are overlapping," Mr Yasay told Agence France-Presse.

In 2013, the Philippines under Mr Benigno Aquino's administration filed a legal challenge with a United Nations-backed tribunal contesting China's claims to nearly all of the strategically vital sea.

China's claims extend almost to the coasts of the Philippines and some other South-east 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.

Mr Duterte, who took office on June 30, has adopted a more conciliatory approach to China than Mr 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.

Mr Yasay signalled yesterday that Mr Duterte would be making no such analogies, emphasising his administration would seek to ensure the best possible relations with China.

He also said China and the Philippines had agreed not to make any "provocative statements" following the release of the ruling.

Mr 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 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country's EEZ falls within 200 nautical miles of its coast. A nation has sovereign rights to exploit natural resources in that zone.

Mr Yasay said the Philippines was open to sharing Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground within the Philippines' EEZ 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.

Mr Yasay said the Philippines would also consider jointly exploring a natural gas field at Reed Bank, which is similarly within the Philippines' EEZ 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," Mr Yasay said when asked about jointly developing Reed Bank.

But he insisted the Philippines would not concede any of its rights in the sea.

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.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'Manila 'willing to share' South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe