The Philippines and China are forging ahead with plans for joint oil and gas exploration in the disputed South China Sea, even as both sides recognise and accept each other’s firm “red lines” in protecting their sovereignty claims.

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, the Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said that a solid guarantee from China that it would not build new installations on Scarborough Shoal – a rocky outcrop claimed by both Beijing and Manila – formed the basis of the cooperation between the two neighbours.

“We separate the two [issues]... China drew some red lines. We drew some red lines. Our red line is building in uninhabited areas including Scarborough,” Cayetano said.

Cayetano, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and other senior Philippine leaders are in Hong Kong for a three-day visit following their attendance at the Boao Forum in Hainan.

The top Philippine diplomat said the start of exploration efforts was “quite near” and contingent on China agreeing to a legal framework on the process, following the set-up in February of a special panel on the technical details of the venture.

“If they [the Chinese] agree, we can have the exploration right away. It could take a week, it could take six months,” said Cayetano.

If they [the Chinese] agree, we can have the exploration right away
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano

The foreign secretary’s comments are the latest sign that the Philippines under Duterte is going all out to strengthen ties with Beijing that had been strained following the 2016 ruling by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration that declared China’s claim to vast areas of the South China Sea were invalid.

Along with China and the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia all have claims over different sectors in the waterway, through which some US$3.4 trillion in trade passes annually. China claims 80 per cent of the waterway under its U-shaped nine-dash line maritime boundary.

Bilateral ties plummeted after Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino in 2013 filed the suit that led to the 2016 ruling.

But soon after the arbitral court’s non-binding decision – which came months after Duterte came to power – the newly minted president sharply repudiated Aquino’s hawkish stance.

Instead, in multiple visits to Beijing he said he was keen on bringing the country closer under China’s diplomatic umbrella, breaking from a decades-old foreign policy of tightly embracing the United States.

The Philippines remains one of just two US treaty allies in Southeast Asia, along with Thailand.

Cayetano said Duterte’s pragmatic approach of diplomatic neutrality and keeping the territorial dispute separate from overall ties heralded a “pendulum swing” in the country’s China policy.

China has pledged billions of dollars in investment in the Philippines in the two years since Duterte came to power.

“The arbitration award is there. Just because we don’t shove it in the face of everyone in multilaterals doesn’t mean it has no value. We have public opinion, and remember, China has much at stake in having peace and stability too,” Cayetano said.

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“Before we weren’t talking and there were no red lines and might was right. But now we are being treated as a sovereign equal,” he added.

Asked if there were concerns of asymmetry in negotiations given China’s vastly greater economic and diplomatic clout, Cayetano said Manila had much to lose if it did not even try to get a fair shake.

“There are going to be sensitive parts, emotional parts, ups and downs in talking about the South China Sea,” the foreign secretary said. “But we already lose if we don’t try. What’s the alternative? If we follow the Aquino administration’s strategy, we’ll just be shouting and be heroes to the rest of the world for standing up for ourselves but [China] would continue building et cetera.”

Still, Manila will not waver on its territorial claims in the disputed waters.

“We are taking all diplomatic actions about it ... including discussing it in bilateral and in some multilateral settings,” Cayetano said.

But for a peaceful settlement, all parties – including non-claimants like the United States – must refrain from aggravating the situation, the foreign secretary said.

The US navy has increased the frequency of its so-called freedom of navigation exercises through the disputed waters as part of measures signalling to China that it will not tolerate any restrictions to nautical movement in the waterway.

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Washington views China’s construction of islands and military facilities in the South China Sea as an affront to international law. But Cayetano said this was exacerbating the situation.

Cayetano said while the Chinese were not “correct” in putting so-called defensive assets on islets it occupies in the waterway, such actions were understandable given the fact that “other claimants are doing it and the Western maritime powers are sailing left and right”.

He added: “If the US was China, wouldn’t the US build its defensive posture around the South China Sea?”

On overall bilateral ties, Cayetano said he was optimistic further inroads would be made because of the close rapport between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping – despite their vastly different personalities.

“They are two different people, but two people who deeply believe in their countries and deeply believe that they can at this juncture in history choose to be either useless or to be a game changer,” he said. “They are two people who want to find the solution to a common problem and don’t want to fight each other.”