MANILA (AFP, PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Philippines said on Thursday (March 1) that it is in talks with a Chinese state firm for joint South China Sea energy resource exploration and extraction, in a proposed deal described by President Rodrigo Duterte as akin to "co-ownership" of contested areas.
The two countries have long been embroiled in a bitter dispute over their competing claims to the region - with China claiming nearly the entire sea - but Mr Duterte has in recent years softened his predecessors' policy of opposing Beijing's claims.
Mr Duterte said on Wednesday that an arrangement to turn two of the rival claimants to virtual joint owners of the strategic and supposedly oil and gas-rich sea was preferable to the "massacre" of Filipino troops in a war with China.
"Now their (Beijing's) offer is joint exploration, which is like co-ownership. It's like the two of us would be the owners. I think that's better than fighting," he said during a visit to the war-torn southern city of Marawi.
Negotiations between the Philippines and China over South China Sea exploration were raised last month (February) by Filipino Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque provided more detail on Thursday, specifying that talks were underway between the Philippines' energy department and an unnamed Chinese state firm, and that extraction of energy resources was now on the table.
He did not specify which specific area of the sea was under discussion.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim all or part of the sea. Proposed co-operation between Manila and Beijing has caused alarm among neighbouring South-east Asian countries in the past.
"We might enter into an agreement with a Chinese-owned corporation, not the Chinese state itself," Mr Roque said in an interview aired on ABS-CBN television, adding that the company he declined to name was state-owned.
"I know that they're discussing, they're moving forward and it's likely to happen," he added without giving a timetable or the exact terms of the proposed deal.
"This will now actually entail joint exploration and possible exploitation of natural resources."
Mr Duterte's willingness to co-operate with China marks a turnaround from predecessor Benigno Aquino's stance accusing Beijing of encroaching, occupying, and building structures on reefs and rocks that Manila claims as part of its exclusive economic zone.
Mr Aquino won an international arbitration tribunal ruling in 2016 invalidating Beijing's claims, but Mr Duterte set aside the ruling while courting investments and trade from the Philippines' giant neighbour, the world's second-largest economy.
Foeeign Secretary Cayetano said last month that Manila would consult legal experts to make sure any accord would not infringe on Philippine sovereign rights.
"It's not that we have no choice. We can go back and say, 'Fine, no one benefits from the resources now'. But come on, we're trying to look for alternative sources of energy," Mr Roque said on Thursday.
He said Filipino firms could not do it on their own and would need Chinese capital, while noting that "when a Filipino company attempted to explore on its own they were met by Chinese warboats (gunboats)".
He was referring to a 2011 incident when Manila said Chinese patrol boats harassed a seismic survey vessel chartered by a unit of a Philippine mining company at Philippine-claimed Reed Bank in the South China Sea.
Separately on Wednesday, Foreign Undersecretary Ernesto Abella said the Philippines would tap on "bilateral dialogue", instead of lodging a "diplomatic protest", in handling the issue regarding China's naming of five undersea features in the Philippine Rise, known formerly as Benham Rise.
He said the issue was discussed during bilateral consultation talks on Feb 13 in Manila when the Philippines also raised with China the "unauthorised" research conducted by the Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2004, which led to the naming of five features in the Philippine Rise.
The bilateral consultation was "the first step", Mr Abella said when pressed whether Manila would make a diplomatic protest over China's "unauthorised" marine research in the Philippine Rise.
"The Philippine government is planning to contest the China-named features in the Philippine Rise," Mr Abella said on Wednesday at a news conference, his first since his new designation as undersecretary for strategic communications three months ago.
"The mechanism we are using is the bilateral dialogue…that's where the next steps are going to be developed," he added.
The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Contintental Shelf declared in 2012 the Philippine Rise as part of the Philippines' continental shelf. The UN body also recognised the Philippines' sovereign rights to explore and exploit the resources in the 13-million hectare underwater plateau off eastern Luzon.
Mr Abella could not say whether China was willing to withdraw the names it had given the undersea features, but disclosed that both sides had agreed "that no further researches must be done without the permission of the Philippine side".
Mr Abella said he also could not say whether the Philippines would contest the names before the International Hydrographic Organisation-Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, where China had applied for the naming privilege in October 2015 and September 2017.
Earlier, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio urged the Malacanang presidential palace to designate a national agency to take charge of approving names for discovered submerged features within the country's extended continental shelf in order to nullify the Chinese names.
Justice Carpio warned that China might eventually claim the Philippine Rise by arguing that it was the first to discover, name and explore the area.