Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte is willing to talk with China over a highly sensitive territorial dispute in the South China Sea, his spokesman said Tuesday, in a significant reversal of the incumbent's stance.
Duterte, who won Monday's election in a landslide, is also willing to form partnerships with China to extract gas and oil deposits that are believed to be in the sea, as well as explore joint fishing management systems, Peter Lavina said.
"This is the difference between the current and the Duterte administrations, the mayor is open to bilateral talks with China," Lavina told reporters in Davao, the major southern city that Duterte has ruled as mayor for most of the past two decades.
China and the Philippines, under President Benigno Aquino, have endured steadily worsening relations in recent years as they sparred over joint claims to parts of the South China Sea, one of the world's most strategically important waterways.
China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.
To enforce its claims, China has built contested reefs into artificial islands, some topped with military-capable airstrips.
China also in 2012 took control of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing area within the Philippines' economic exclusive zone.
The Philippines, with a tiny military compared with China, has responded by signing a new defence pact with the United States and filing a legal challenge with a United Nations tribunal asking it to rule the Chinese claims to most of the sea are invalid.
It has also sought to raise the issue at multilateral events such as summits of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
China has reacted furiously to Aquino's tactics, demanding that the Philippines negotiate directly but also insisting that it will never give up any of the territory.
Aquino has refused to hold direct talks, fearing the better resourced and more powerful China would have an advantage. He has also said there is no point in talking with China if it insists there is nothing to negotiate.
Lavina said Duterte would continue with the UN case. A verdict is expected soon after Duterte is sworn into office on June 30.
He also sought to downplay a Duterte comment on the campaign trail that he would use a jet ski to reach a disputed island occupied by China to stake the Philippine claim.
"He jokingly said that if we win that case and China will not respect, he will use a jet ski," Lavina said.