Joint energy venture a sensible approach
Both China and the Philippines have adopted a pragmatic approach in their dealings over the disputed waters, and could set an example for other countries with competing claims in the area
Relations between China and the Philippines have made a remarkable turnaround under President Rodrigo Duterte. Ties have warmed to the point that talk has been raised of joint energy ventures in parts of the South China Sea that both nations claim. Duterte is no less protective of Philippine interests than predecessors, and has not formed any special bonds with President Xi Jinping or other Chinese leaders. Yet what has made the real difference is a pragmatic approach towards the actual circumstances, a strategy adopted by both sides.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted the changed atmosphere in his remarks during a recent two-day visit to Manila. He said that “for neighbours, dialogue is better than confrontation; cooperation is better than friction”. Duterte was equally realistic, pointing out China’s importance and the willingness of his country to build stronger relations. His was a far cry from the approach of the former Philippine president, Benigno Aquino, who chose confrontation over the disputed seas rather than pursuing common goals.
Aquino’s unilateral push for a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a sovereignty case soured ties with China. The court’s decision a year ago was in favour of the Philippines; it invalidated Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea. China refuses to recognise the ruling, but unlike Aquino, Duterte has not tried to push the matter. Instead, he has set aside the issue and reached out to Beijing, with the result that so far this year, billions of dollars of Chinese infrastructure projects have been agreed under a previously frozen trade and economic cooperation mechanism.
Striking a deal on oil and gas reserves in the disputed area will not be so straightforward, though; sovereignty is a politically sensitive issue and a sharing arrangement faces difficult negotiations. This was the reason the idea of such an agreement had never been broached again despite first being raised in 1986. But China and the Philippines now have pragmatic leaders and joint exploitation is a sensible way forward. If a deal results, it would be a shining example for other countries with claims to the South China Sea of how to handle their disputes.