Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque (File photo)

MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte has made it clear that there is a “limit” to the Philippines’ friendship with China, especially when Beijing starts asserting a claim over oil and gas deposits in the disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS), Malacañang said on Tuesday.

“I think he just made it very clear na may limit at may hangganan ang pagkakaibigan,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a virtual press conference.

“Pagdating nga sa mga scarce resources kagaya ng langis at natural gas eh paninindigan ni Presidente ito (When it comes to scarce resources like oil and natural gas, the President will fight for it).”

Roque issued the statement a day after Duterte warned China that he would send gray ships to WPS, should it start drilling for oil in the contested waters.

Duterte said exploiting oil and mineral resources in the disputed sea is not part of the Philippines’ agreement with China.

His latest warning came amid the presence of Chinese vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef in the WPS.

Roque, nevertheless, said the Philippines is still in talks with China for the crafting of the final and binding Code of Conduct (COC) in WPS and the possible joint exploration of oil and gas fields in the disputed waters.

He said the Duterte government is optimistic that the negotiations would bear fruit since the two nations are friends.

“Wala pa pong napipirmahan (We have not signed anything yet),” Roque said. “‘Yun po ‘yung posibleng mga kasunduan na inaasahan nating magbubunga dahil nga dito sa malapit na relasyon natin sa Tsina (Those are the deals that we are expecting to bear fruit because of our close relations with China).”

The COC in WPS aims to promote peace and stability in the highly-contested waters, while the planned joint exploration in WPS is seen as a fair deal between the Philippines and China amid the maritime dispute.

Maintaining ‘status quo’

The Philippines, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, has repeatedly filed diplomatic notes against China over the prolonged presence of Chinese vessels in WPS.

On April 14, the DFA lodged a diplomatic note that counts as the daily protest so long as there are Chinese boats in and around Julian Felipe Reef in WPS, and another diplomatic protest on the dispersal of Chinese ships to other parts of Philippine maritime zones.

China’s presence in WPS came despite the Philippines’ 2016 historic win against Beijing’s sweeping claims to nearly the entire contested sea.

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands invalidated China's nine-dash line, a geographical marker Beijing invoked to assert its extensive claims in the strategic waters.

Roque, however, said the Philippines would maintain the “status quo” in WPS.

“Kaya nga po status quo tayo ngayon dahil hindi naman natin mababawi iyan kung wala tayong lakas para bawiin kung ano ang atin ‘no (It’s status quo because we won’t be able to retrieve it if we do not have the power to retrieve what’s ours),” he said.

Roque said the government could not enforce the 2016 arbitral ruling because that is the “reality in international law.”

“Ang one different feature of international law is wala tayong enforcement mechanism lalung-lalo na sa mga arbitral tribunal awards (The one different feature of international law is we do not have an enforcement mechanism, especially in arbitral tribunal awards),” he said. “The enforcement mechanism is based solely on the fact that no country would want to admit that they are in breach of their obligations under international law.” (PNA)