MANILA-- President Rodrigo Duterte has approved the establishment of a technical working group (TWG) on the Philippines-China joint exploration in the disputed West Philippine Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Tuesday.

"I just got his approval in principle, but I can tell you that the areas where I want to have experts at the highest level, meaning we have Cabinet level," he told a press briefing in Taguig City.

For the environment, Cayetano said the TWG will have representatives from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources; for oil and gas, the Department of Energy; for security, the Department of National Defense, National Security Council, National Intelligence Coordinating Agency and the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

There will also be a legal team, composed of the Department of Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General to advise and help in the negotiation stage.

"In our arbitration award, we had a team, there's a legal team. In this case, it's not a legal team that's going to file a case, but a legal team that's going to advise us and help us negotiate," he said.

The legal team will focus on three components -- on oil and gas, on Constitutional law, and on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Cayetano also disclosed that the Chinese side is ready with its own technical working group.

"I'll let them make their own announcements. But as soon as both sides have working groups, at least we can talk. I'm not sure if we can agree but at least we can start talking."

Cayetano said the timeline is still "as soon as possible."

With the creation of working groups on both sides, he said they are hoping to finish the draft framework by September 2018.

"I am even more optimistic that we can come up with something by September. I've always told you it can happen tomorrow, it can happen in a year, but why are we rushing? Because Malampaya will run out in 2024," Cayetano said.

Cayetano maintained that any deal on the joint exploration talks will be in favor of the Philippines, which may be equal to the 60-40 Malampaya sharing or even better.

"Malampaya is structured on 60-40 but we're negotiating for better than that," he said.

Cayetano clarified that same as China, the Philippines also has an "indisputable claim" in the strategic waters.

But opting for a joint exploration talks instead of settling the territorial dispute first does not necessarily mean giving up the country's sovereign rights in the region, he said.

"We also have indisputable sovereignty over our territory which is defined by the Philippine Constitution, and we also have indisputable claims under the UNCLOS. But again, where do we take it from there?"

He said if the country is to wait for a decision on territory, "it might take forever."

"For us to come to some agreement, which is the same with the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, we have to put aside territorial and sovereign rights claims but not abandon them," Cayetano said. (PNA)