MANILA, Philippines – Beijing and Manila have agreed to a joint oil and gas exploration deal – one of 29 deals that were signed on Tuesday as Chinese President Xi Jinping began a two-day state visit to the Philippines.
The two nations also signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on Beijing’s vast trade and infrastructure strategy, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, and agreed to boost ties.
After meeting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for talks, Xi described the visit as a “milestone” in the countries’ relations. Xi is the first Chinese leader to visit Manila in 13 years.
The trip is widely seen as part of Beijing’s efforts to move closer to the Philippines – despite their long-running dispute over the South China Sea – by extending investment and aid to the United States ally.
“China and the Philippines have a lot of common interests in the South China Sea,” Xi said after the talks. “We will continue to manage contentious issues and promote maritime cooperation through friendly consultation.”
He also said China would work with other Southeast Asian countries to finalize a code of conduct for the disputed waters within three years.
Duterte said China and the Philippines had pushed forward bilateral cooperation in a wide range of areas in recent years.
“I am pleased with the current positive momentum of the Philippine-China relations,” Duterte said. “There is deepening trust and confidence of government.”
Zhang Xuegang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the oil and gas exploration agreement set an example for other claimants in the South China Sea.
“These two countries that once ended up at an international tribunal have now sat down and reached a deal through talks. This has positive implications for regional peace and cooperation,” Zhang said.
However, international law experts have argued that signing the exploration deal with China is like a death sentence on the The Hague ruling which stipulates that China has no legal basis to claim nor explore the West Philippine Sea.