MANILA (UPDATE)—Manila's top diplomat on Wednesday said the inter-governmental steering committee tasked to supervise the joint exploration between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea has been constituted following the signing of the terms of reference last month.
"The terms of reference really just fleshes out the memorandum of agreement which is very clear: no legal position of either side is compromised when you enter into this agreement," Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said on ANC's Headstart.
The Philippines and China have agreed to jointly explore oil and gas reserves in the West Philippine Sea, Manila's exclusive economic zone in the disputed territory.
Following a meeting between President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Aug. 29, the two countries agreed to form working groups to explore commercial oil and gas agreements.
Locsin and his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, signed terms months after both officials inked the memorandum on oil and gas development in November 2018.
"What it says here in the terms of reference is this is how we operationalize it, because under the MOU you start by creating the steering committee," he said.
The DFA chief said he and Yi will head the steering committee.
Under Locsin is the Department of Energy, the Maritime and Oceans Affairs Office, and the departments of foreign affairs, energy, justice, and environment and natural resources.
For the Chinese side, he said some members include officials from the National Energy Administration, Boundary and Oceans Affairs, Department of Asian Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Department of Treaty and Law.
He said the steering committee would meet every three months on dates and locations agreed by both parties.
"What happens there, the steering committee is the one responsible for negotiating and agreeing on the cooperation agreements already between real parties. With that, we constitute the number and the working area of the working groups who will be under us. This is already the private sector," he said.
Under the Constitution, Locsin said the joint exploration allows for 60-40 share.
Duterte last month said he is ok with the 60-40 split as long as Manila gets the bigger share.
Locsin said the memorandum on oil and gas makes it unnecessary to set aside the arbitral ruling.
"The memorandum on oil and gas is only addressed in disputed areas," he said.
"If the area chosen is a disputed area but there is no service contract then the memorandum of agreement prevails but then the terms of references says that PNOC takes the initiative now."
He added that Duterte was firm when he raised the arbitral ruling during the bilateral meeting in Beijing last month.
Duterte, he said, stated "we hold the arbitral award is final, binding and not subject to appeal."
"What the arbitral award did is that it put the award beyond the reach of compromise. In other words, I don't care if the Filipino people want to set it aside. No, its there. Its now an award. It's final and binding in international tribunal," he said.
Duterte, however, previously told reporters he will "ignore the arbitral ruling to come up with an economic activity" with China. He did not elaborate further.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario blasted the President's statement, saying the arbitral ruling is already part of international law which clarified the extent of Philippine sovereign rights protected under the Constitution.
"In particular, the Arbitral Ruling clarified the extent of our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) protected under the Constitution," Del Rosario said in a statement.
Magdalo Party-list Rep. Manuel Cabochan III also slammed Duterte for "forgetting his mandate."
"I hope other government agencies will stand by their sworn duty. Sovereignty and territorial integrity have no cost," said Cabochan.
The Philippines in 2016 won a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
However, China didn't recognize the ruling and has instead ramped up its militarization efforts in the vital waterway.