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Roque: Sea row, joint development discussed during Duterte-Xi meeting

President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on Tuesday committed to ensure stability in the South China Sea and advance cooperation in offshore oil and gas exploration in the disputed waters.

Duterte and Xi held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Boao for Asia Forum in the southern province of Hainan before the President left for Hong Kong to touch base with thousands of Filipino workers in the Special Administrative Region.

“There was an agreement to focus on stability and strengthen communications to avoid untoward incidents. There was more or less mention that joint development of offshore oil development must continue,” Roque said.

Duterte and Xi “acknowledged that there are differences between the two sides, but agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and stability and managing the disputes through peaceful and diplomatic means,” Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana told GMA News Online on Wednesday.

“They also agreed to continue the use of bilateral talks to handle the disputes while seeking to strengthen various forms of maritime cooperation,” Sta. Romana noted.

During a meeting earlier in Manila, Chinese and Philippine officials agreed to pursue confidence-building measures such as conducting several joint initiatives in the resource-rich waters including oil and gas cooperation and marine scientific research.

Such activities, the two sides agreed, would be conducted “without prejudice to their respective positions on sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has said any planned energy exploration deal with China would comply with the Philippine constitution and international laws.

Roque has emphasized that the deal should involve companies and not governments.

Last month, Cayetano met with China’s top diplomat State Councilor Wang Yi in Beijing. The Chinese official said the South China Sea will be turned into a “source of friendship and cooperation.”

Sta. Romana noted both Duterte and Xi “agreed to continue the discussion in pursuit of an agreement on joint exploration” in the strategic waterway.

“But no specific timeline was set during the meeting, it will depend on the progress of the bilateral negotiations,” he said.

In Hong Kong, Cayetano viewed the two leaders’ discussion on the matter as a “go signal” to craft a framework for the joint exploration setup.

"How important was that statement made by the two leaders? Very important, because it's basically the go signal to come up with a framework, and if it's acceptable to both sides, we could see the joint exploration done soon," he said in a press conference.

Despite competing claims in parts of the resource-rich sea, relations between the Philippines and China have been warming since Duterte stepped into office in June 2016.

The Philippines won the case it filed against China before The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, but Duterte declined to tout the ruling and instead sought closer ties with Beijing in hopes of securing funding for much needed infrastructure. —VDS/BAP, GMA News