South China Sea: focus on oil and gas, not maritime dispute, Beijing urges Philippines

Catherine Wong
·3-min read

China and the Philippines should not be distracted by their disputes in the South China Sea and should instead focus on advancing cooperation on oil and gas exploration in the region, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said when wrapping up his week-long tour of Southeast Asia.

Wang’s trip, which also included stops in Myanmar, Indonesia and Brunei, came with Beijing seeking to consolidate its ties with the region before the new US administration takes office this week.

In an interview with state media posted on the ministry’s website on Sunday, Wang highlighted China’s desire to move the focus away from maritime disputes to joint exploration of resources in the waters.

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“Both sides believe that the South China Sea issue is only partial to the entirety of Sino-Philippines relations,” Wang said, discussing the outcomes of his Manila visit. “We should not let such 1 per cent difference derail the 99 per cent of our relations.”

Wang said the two countries would continue to “properly manage their disputes” and push for oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.

Separately during Wang’s tour, China and Brunei set up a working group on energy cooperation, the ministry said on Friday, without providing details.

The Philippine government in October lifted a ban on offshore oil and gas exploration, reopening the door to joint energy development with China.

Two years ago, the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly explore undersea oil and gas, a way of defusing their corner of a broader regional dispute.

South China Sea: the dispute that could start a military conflict

In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague upheld the Philippines’ challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims to almost all of the South China Sea, but Beijing has never accepted the ruling.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has promised to shelve the dispute in exchange for Beijing’s economic aid.

As the Duterte administration nears its end, Beijing has sought to reaffirm support for its neighbour, promising half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million in grants.

Wang said the supply of vaccines to the Philippines showed Beijing’s willingness to help the Philippines overcome its Covid-19 pandemic challenges.

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China and the Philippines also announced an arrangement for fast-track border crossing during the pandemic for certain personnel, and opened the Bank of China’s yuan clearing business in the Philippines.

China would continue to take part in the Philippine side’s infrastructure plans and actively promote cooperation on major projects to lay a better foundation for the Philippines’ long-term development, Wang said.

He said China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were working together to advance post-pandemic recovery. “Facts once again show that adherence to regional and multilateral mechanisms is more important than ever,” he said.

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