Beijing – China and the Philippines said Wednesday they will cautiously proceed with discussions on joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, further reversing years of tensions over their competing claims to the region.
The two states have long been embroiled in a bitter dispute over the waterway – with China claiming nearly the entire sea – but President Duterte has in recent years softened his predecessors’ policy of opposing Beijing’s claims.
The countries will “in a prudent and steady way advance cooperation on offshore oil and gas exploration,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters after meeting Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.
“The South China Sea disputes will no longer be a source of negative energy blocking the development of bilateral ties,” he added.
The Philippines said earlier this month it was in talks with a Chinese state firm over joint exploration and extraction in the strategic and supposedly resource-rich sea.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim all or part of the sea, and proposed cooperation between Manila and Beijing has caused alarm among neighboring Southeast Asian countries in the past.
Cayetano said at the press conference that China and the Philippines “are finding a common legal framework to conduct joint exploration and surveys”.
“Our relationship… is in a golden period, and with very positive momentum,” he said, adding that the countries “are now ready to face more challenges together.”
However, no further details on the nature of the agreed cooperation were given.
Cayetano said last month that Manila would consult legal experts to make sure any accord would not infringe Philippine sovereign rights.
Duterte has described a proposed deal as akin to “co-ownership” of contested areas, saying this was preferable to the “massacre” of Filipino troops in a war with China.
Meanwhile, Duterte is scheduled to travel once again to China next month to attend the annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia.
This was announced Wang in a joint news conference with Cayetano in Beijing.
The Boao Forum for Asia is a non-profit organization that hosts high-level forums for leaders from government, business and academia in Asia and other continents to share their vision on the most pressing issues in this dynamic region and the world at large.
Modeled after the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland, the Boao Forum has its fixed address in Bo’ao, Hainan province, China, although the secretariat is based in Beijing. (With a report from Roy C. Mabasa)