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Duterte OKs group to study PHL-China joint exploration

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Tuesday announced that President Rodrigo Duterte has approved his proposal to form an experts group from the government, academe and the private sector that will look into the legality and other aspects of the proposed joint exploration between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.

The joint working group will be comprised of government officials from the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Energy, Environment, Justice, and the Office of the Solicitor General, as well as academic experts on international law and oil and gas and private individuals with expertise on commercial energy ventures.

"Our job is to put a framework acceptable to both the Philippines and China," Cayetano said, adding the two countries are eyeing a draft within the month or in September.

"The challenge for us is to draft a framework that the Supreme Court will have an easy time saying it’s constitutional."

China, Cayetano said, is also forming its own working group.

"If both sides have working groups at least we can talk," Cayetano told a press conference. "If we can agree at least we can start talking."

A legal team, Cayetano said, will also advise the government and help negotiate any possible energy deal with China.

"They will have three components - oil and gas, constitutional law and UNCLOS experts," Cayetano said.

UNCLOS stands for United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 treaty considered as the constitution of the seas.

Cayetano earlier said the Philippines is open to a 60-40 deal, in favor of Manila, should a joint development undertaking pushes through with China.

He said the site for joint exploration has not yet been identified, but Malacañang previously mentioned that Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone under the UNCLOS, may be a possible area.

Cayetano assured that any planned energy exploration deal with rival claimant China in the South China Sea will comply with the Philippine Constitution and international laws.

But before joint exploration could move forward, Cayetano said both sides need to temporarily set aside contentious issues.

"We have to put aside territorial and sovereign rights claims but not abandon them," he said.

"We also have indisputable sovereignty over our territory which is defined by the Philippine Constitution, and we also have indisputable claims under UNCLOS. But again where do we take it from there?"

The resource-rich South China Sea, a chain of more than 100 islands, shoals, reefs and coral outcrops, straddles one of the world’s most vital sea lanes. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are also claimants to the South China Sea.

China has long frowned on any discussion of the disputes in multilateral arenas like the Association of South East Asian Nations, where the Philippines is a member and Beijing a dialogue partner. China demands instead for a bilateral negotiation.

Relations between Manila and Beijing have improved under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has sought Chinese trade and economic aid while shelving long-running territorial disputes, including an arbitral tribunal case won by the country but rejected by China. —JST, GMA News