Sotto backs joint WPS search with China

Published May 15, 2021, 6:33 PM

by Vanne Elaine Terrazola

Senate President Vicente Sotto III has expressed to Beijing’s Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian his willingness to convince the Philippine government to partner with China to jointly explore the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Senate President Vicente Sotto III tells reporters in an online briefing on May 6, 2021 that the Philippines should continue negotiating with China about the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea. (Screenshot from Zoom meeting/MANILA BULLETIN)

“I will encourage my government to start with the exploration in the area, if you want to be partners with us, sabi ko (I told him), you talk to the President. If not, we can explore with other countries, other investors,” Sotto told Huang.

The Senate chief said he discussed WPS issues with Huang last Tuesday, May 11, when the latter explained the presence of several Chinese militia and fishing vessels in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“Siya nagbring up at, wala, nag-eeksplika lang siya. Sabi ko naman, kako, on my part, basta I’m supporting the position of the Department of Foreign Affairs (He was the one who brought it up, and nothing much, he was just explaining. On my part, I told him that I’m supporting the position of the DFA),” Sotto disclosed in an interview over DWIZ radio Saturday, May 15.

“Diniretsa ko siya (I frankly told him), ‘I think Sec. Teddy Boy Locsin is the expert on this matter right now, so I will just support him’,” he said.

The Philippines, through the DFA, has sent several diplomatic protests to China for its fresh incursions in the WPS since March.

Locsin had also cursed at China after firing off the diplomatic protests.

Sotto told Huang that Locsin “didn’t mean it”, recalling that the Philippines’ top diplomat has already apologized for his tweet.

When Sotto raised to the Chinese ambassador their country’s continued construction activities in the WPS, Huang supposedly replied: “No we already stopped since 2016.”

In September last year, the Department of Defense (DND) said China has not stopped with its improvments in the artificial islands it built in the WPS, including in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and several other features of the area.

Huang also insisted on their narrative that the Chinese vessels docked at the Julian Felipe Reef only sought shelter due to bad weather and “immediately left” when conditions improved.

But even the government task force handling the WPS said the Chinese vessels still lingered and did not leave the Philippines’ EEZ.

It was during their casual meeting that Sotto offered to encourage the government to partner with China in exploring resources in the WPS.

In November, 2018, the Philippines signed a memorandum of understanding with China creating the framework for future negotiations on joint oil and gas exploration.

In October, 2020, President Duterte lifted the moratorium on seismic as well as oil and gas drilling activities in the WPS, allowing the entry of investors in the upstream petroleum sector, including the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC).

Amid the territorial dispute in the WPS, Sotto earlier said the Philippines has “no other recourse” but to negotiate with China.