Momentum is growing in Philippine political circles to prevent South China Sea territorial issues from hampering cooperation with Beijing, observers said.
The Manila Times reported on Tuesday that the Philippines and China will set up talks this year to settle sensitive issues, including the dispute in the South China Sea. Philippine ambassador-designate to China Jose Santa Romana said the schedule of the meetings was under discussion and that the start of talks would be announced soon.
The talks were part of the agreement between the Philippines and China during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit in Beijing in October 2016.
“The dispute will not serve as an obstacle in terms of developing relations. We will separate it so that we grow on a separate track,” Santa Romana said at a forum in Manila on Monday.
Duterte has indicated that under his China policy, contentious issues will be discussed one by one with the use of “quiet diplomacy”.
On Thursday, a Philippine lawmaker said the potential joint exploration of the South China Sea by the Philippines and China is allowed under the Philippine Constitution.
“The idea of coming to mutual agreement over natural resources is constitutional and has been beneficial in the past,” Rep. Harry Roque said in a statement.
“An independent foreign policy demands that we ask ourselves a very simple question: Is it in the interest of the state to pursue such action? At the moment, my answer would be yes. While some of us can wait for another 10, 20 or 50 years to resolve a territorial dispute that has existed for decades, many Filipinos still suffer in poverty because of the lack of resources and opportunities in our country,” he said.
Santa Romana previously said that the Philippines government is “seriously studying” the possibility of conducting joint exploration in the South China Sea with China.
Roque’s position is shared by House of Representatives Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who said he supports efforts to study joint exploration.
Xu Liping, a senior researcher of Southeast Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said political circles in the Philippines are moving toward the idea of not letting territorial issues stunt cooperation with China.
Li Guoqiang, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies, said the Duterte government will have to figure out how to improve ties with Beijing while keeping the South China Sea from impeding cooperation.
“It is smart to establish double channels for negotiations,” he said. “The ambassador is sending a good signal from Manila.”