By Genalyn Kabiling
BOAO, China – The Philippines is trying to finalize a joint sea exploration agreement with China in the next couple of months, the Philippine ambassador to China said Monday.
Amb. Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said negotiations are ongoing to find a common legal framework to conduct joint mineral exploration in the South China Sea.
“Well, I think the best estimate I’ve gotten is from Secretary Cayetano – that, we’re trying to see if we can achieve an agreement. Hopefully, within the next couple of months,” Sta. Romana said during an interview with reporters here ahead of President Duterte’s attendance to the Boao Forum for Asia annual conference.
“But as always, you know, negotiations you can never predict if it’s necessary to take a longer time, we’ll take our time as long as we can meet our objectives,” he added.
Sta. Romana recognized that both sides were aware of certain parameters on the planned oil and gas exploration.
For the Philippines, Sta. Romana said any agreement to jointly explore the sea with China must be “within our Constitutional requirements and our legal requirements.” It must also “stand public scrutiny” and must be “acceptable to the Filipino people,” he said.
“The basic point we’re trying to achieve is to find a way to be able to enhance our energy security, to solve our crying need for energy in a way that we can achieve it in a peaceful – with a peaceful and diplomatic solution so that we can finally explore and develop the resources that belong to us and avoid making it a source of conflict,” he said.
The ambassador emphasized that there was “political willingness on both sides to try to achieve an agreement as soon as possible.”
“And this is what we’re trying to do and that is why we are exploring you know, a suitable framework that will be acceptable to both sides,” he said.“What could happen will be a continuing discussion on this but I don’t… there will be no agreement to be signed on that regard this time,” he added.
The Philippines and China earlier agreed on “prudent” cooperation joint sea exploration despite an ongoing dispute over the strategic waterway.
The government was considering two areas for joint exploration with China, including one in territory that the nations have argued over for years. These are service contract 57, located west of the Calamian Islands in Palawan, and service contract 72 which covers Reed Bank, both claimed by the Philippines and China.
In another sign of improving bilateral relations, the Philippines and China are expected to forge an agreement allowing the entry of more Filipino teachers of the English language to China.
The labor pact will be among the bilateral agreements to be signed during President Duterte’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping today, said Sta. Romana.
Duterte is due to hold talks with Xi on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia to further enhance bilateral ties between the two countries.
“There are some minor details still being ironed out, but if everything works, the agreement to open, to hire more Filipino English teachers for China, to open the Chinese market,” Sta. Romana said.
He noted, though, that China has relaxed migrant workers’ rules, citing it was now interested in hiring non-native English speakers, or those from colonized countries.
“There used to be a Chinese rule that excluded the Philippines as a legal source or as a source that they encouraged. They wanted to emphasize you know, what they called native speakers but they have relaxed it now,” he said.
“Now they are more open, they are more accommodating and there’s growing need in China to learn English,” he added.
Apart from the proposed labor agreement, Sta. Romana said the two countries are expected to ink agreements to
“further deepen and broaden the economic relations,” and the final loan agreement on the Chico Dam development project.
“There are also agreements to basically, to improve the groundwork for more exchanges in the future,” he said.
“The final list will be known soon because as of now, actually, there are some minor details that we’re still sorting out. But we’ll expect there are a couple of agreements to be signed,” he added.
Focus on trade
“The President will be prepared to discuss the whole range of issues. Of course, time is limited so I expect him to focus on the big issues, on the big picture, and basically it’s how to move, how to propel forward the friendship and cooperation between the Philippines and China as part of the President’s independent foreign policy, which is to make friends with everyone and to try to create no enemies as much as possible,” he added.
So far, Sta. Romana said the country adopted a two-track approach that attempts to separate the contentious issues such as the territorial dispute from non-contentious issues such as trade and investments.
In dealing with the South China issue, he said they have used diplomacy or the bilateral consultative mechanism to deal with the territorial issue between the two countries. The bilateral consultative meetings were already held in May 2017 and February 2018.
“This is where we bring up the issues of reclamation, land reclamation, military — non-militarization, and the need for non-militarization, the whole issue of… that divides our two countries,” he said.
So far, he said they have promoted Philippine-China cooperation on non-contentious issues as such trade and investments, science and technology, art and culture.
“So now what we are doing is that we have, in a sense, defrost. We have restored the non-contentious areas and that is why you see trade booming, you see tourism booming,” he said.