MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines said it is willing to "put aside" its rights over the West Philippine Sea, as it pursues a possible "60-40" joint development with China in waters exclusively for Filipinos.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said that for the Philippines to arrive at an agreement similar to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, "we have to put aside our territorial and sovereign rights claims but not abandon them."
"The preliminary agreement is based on, let's cooperate first, and let's talk about who owns what, who has jurisdiction, later on," Cayetano said in a press conference on Tuesday, August 7.
In saying this, Cayetano was right that islands in the West Philippine Sea remain disputed. This is because the arbitral tribunal in The Hague, which ruled based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), only tackled disputes over water, not land.
Cayetano was wrong, however, when he continued to describe the Philippines' sovereign rights, or its rights over the West Philippine Sea, as mere "claims." The arbitral tribunal, after all, already upheld the Philippines' rights over the West Philippine Sea.
Cayetano made these recent statements after he was asked about the proposed joint development in the West Philippine Sea, where the Philippines will get 60% of the profit and China, 40%. China is open to this 60-40 arrangement, Cayetano earlier said.
China stands by 'indisputable' claim
Cayetano said in Tuesday's press conference, however, that China is standing by its position that it exercises "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands in the West Philippine Sea and their adjacent waters.
Asked about the Philippines' position, Cayetano said, "We also have indisputable sovereignty over our territory which is defined by the Philippine Constitution, and we also have indisputable claims under UNCLOS. But again where do we take it from there?"
Cayetano, who is fond of metaphors, explained by way of example: "Let's say a very generic pen was found, and you can show me a picture of you using it, I can show you a picture of me using it, so what do we do? Do we leave it in court and say no one uses it until we decide?"
"It's a matter of principled pragmatism," Cayetano also said. "What's better, 60-40 or 0-0?"
Former president Benigno Aquino III earlier warned that the proposed 60-40 arrangement could end up as disadvantageous to the Philippines.
"Ang bargaining position, 60-40. Baka naman sa dulo nito ay baliktad. Baka sila 60, baka 70," Aquino said. (Our bargaining position is 60-40. But in the end, it might be the opposite. They might get 60, maybe 70.)
Aquino stressed that the West Philippine Sea is covered by the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a 200-nautical mile area within which the Philippines has exclusive rights to explore and exploit marine resources.
"Exclusive economic zone ang pinag-uusapan eh. Parang wala tayong obligasyon na makihati sa kanila. Noong panahon ko may joke eh, sabi raw nila: 'What is ours is ours. What is yours, we share.' So ngayon, parang nagiging totoo na ata ito," Aquino said.
(We're talking about our exclusive economic zone. We have no obligation to share it with them. During my time, there was a joke. China said: "What is ours is ours. What is yours, we share." So now, it seems this is coming true.)
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.