MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines is being cautious about Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing’s declaration of Beijing’s openness to a joint exploration in the contested West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), a statement recently reiterated by China’s Foreign Ministry in asserting its commitment to a peaceful resolution to the maritime dispute.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Monday that any joint development in disputed territories off the Western seaboard should abide by Philippine law and that talks should be led by the private sector.
“We take a guarded position on China’s statement on joint development,” Del Rosario told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in comments sent by text.
“Any commercial negotiations on oil exploration should be left to the concerned private sector parties to undertake. Any exploration agreement in the West Philippine Sea must be in accordance with Philippine law,” said the Philippines’ top diplomat.
In an interview with Inquirer reporters and editors in December, Ma expressed China’s willingness to jointly explore oil and mineral riches in the West Philippine Sea, saying “it is a still very valid formula” as border disputes might not be solved “in the very short term.”
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun also said in a recent speech in Beijing that “joint development may still well be a practical approach” in resolving the maritime dispute, asserting that China has been against the use and threat of force in settling the issue.
Del Rosario declined to further comment when asked how the Chinese openness could possibly impact the sovereignty debate.
China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have conflicting claims over territories in the West Philippine Sea, believed to be rich in oil, mineral and marine resources.
The China National Offshore Oil Corp. is known to have started deep-water drilling in parts of the South China Sea.
Taiwan’s Bureau of Mines and state-run oil supplier CPC Corp. have also announced plans to start oil and exploration in waters around Ligao Island, the biggest islet in the disputed Spratlys that the Taiwanese call Taiping.
The Philippines, meanwhile, is known to have oil exploration contracts in part of the Spratlys within its exclusive economic zone.
China’s statements asserting its commitment to peacefully resolving the maritime dispute came amid actions that the Philippines have viewed as violations of international law, including Chinese sea patrols in the disputed waters, military drills and construction of new infrastructure in Sansha City.
China established the city on its southern province of Hainan in 2012 to supposedly govern the whole of Spratlys. It is known to have some 1,000 civilians and 6,000 troops as permanent residents.