This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Beijing initially sought to block the presence of foreign powers in the South China Sea as it negotiated a regional pact with Southeast Asian countries, but has softened that position, the top Philippine diplomat said Wednesday.
The Philippines is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which for years has been negotiating with China to establish a “code of conduct” aimed at easing international tensions in the disputed sea region.
“The reports we’re getting now, is this, China is mellowing. It’s no longer insisting on the exclusion of foreign powers. It’s no longer insisting on this and that,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in an interview with ABS-CBN, a local news outlet.
China, which claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own, has ignored a 2016 international court ruling in favor of Philippines claims to the waterway and has been working with the ASEAN nations to establish a code of conduct for the region. Apart from China and the Philippines, ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam along with China’s rival, Taiwan, also claim parts of the sea.
Locsin made the comments a day after President Rodrigo Duterte spoke to reporters about discussions with his Chinese counterpart involving efforts to profit from joint exploration of the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.
Duterte said that during a recent trip to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping had promised him a revenue sharing agreement favoring Manila in exchange for disregarding the 2016 ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
“Set aside your claim,” Duterte told a select group of Philippine reporters, according to transcripts provided to the general press on Wednesday. “Then allow everybody connected with the Chinese companies. They want to explore and if there is something, they said ‘we would be gracious enough to give you 60 percent. They will get 40 percent.
“That is the promise of Xi Jinping,” Duterte said.
On Wednesday, Locsin sought to clarify Duterte’s statement.
“China has never made setting aside the arbitral award a prerequisite to anything,” he said via Twitter.
The leaders agreed in principle to advance talks on an exploration deal, but no deal been signed, officials said.
Locsin said the countries had trouble reaching agreement because China had insisted that no “foreign military power should be having a military presence in the South China Sea” and if “you want to develop oil and gas, they’ll only be with us,” according to ABS-CBN.
He said the proposed deal “applies only in disputed areas” and not to areas that Beijing has conceded belongs to the Philippines. He did not go into detail about those areas.
Tensions rose in June when a Chinese trawler hit a Philippine fishing boat near Recto Bank. A Vietnamese boat rescued 22 Filipino fishermen who had been stranded in the South China Sea.
The United States, meanwhile, maintains its military relationships with ASEAN nations and seeks to protect freedom of navigation in the sea. In July, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and other ships in its strike group anchored off Manila in a show of strength.
“Clearly, we have a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines,” Rear Adm. Karl Thomas told reporters at the time. “The ship is very capable and ready to respond to a wide range of operations, whether they be crises or whether they be a humanitarian disaster response. We’re certainly ready to do what our superiors tell us to do.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. concluded its first combined naval exercises with ASEAN militaries in the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea.