China and the Philippines agreed to a controversial deal on joint oil and gas development in the South China Sea on Tuesday, in the latest sign of a deepening rapprochement between the two countries.
As Xi Jinping arrived in the Philippines for the first state visit by a Chinese leader in 13 years, a long-mooted bilateral memorandum of understanding to unlock rich offshore deposits was signed between the two countries.
Relations between Beijing and Manila had frayed due to a longstanding territorial dispute over the South China Sea, but Rodrigo Duterte has tilted the Philippines away from its traditional ally, the US, and towards China after becoming president in 2016.
Welcoming Mr Xi to Malacañang Palace in Manila on Tuesday, Mr Duterte described the Chinese president’s visit as “a landmark moment in our shared history”.
He added: “We have turned a new page and we are ready to write a new chapter of openness and co-operation.”
Details of the oil and gas agreement’s framework were not made public on Tuesday. However, the suggestion that the Philippines join with China to prospect for energy in waters where both countries claim sovereignty was condemned by Mr Duterte’s political opponents.
Opposition senators Antonio Trillanes IV, a leading critic of the president, and Francis Pangilinan urged Mr Duterte not to sign any agreement with China or any other country that “diminishes the Philippines’ exclusive rights”. Doing so, they said, would violate the country’s constitution.
In 2016 an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in the Philippines’ favour in its maritime dispute with China over what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.
Mr Trillanes on Tuesday circulated what he said was a Chinese draft of the deal, seen by the Financial Times, that proposed equal sharing of the proceeds from joint exploration and “friendly consultations” to resolve disputes. The FT could not independently verify the document’s authenticity.
“It is preposterous and treacherous,” said Risa Hontiveros, another opposition senator. “It reverses our historic victory at The Hague and signs away Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.”
Both Mr Xi and Mr Duterte were keen to play down the issue. “China and the Philippines have a lot of common interest in the South China Sea,” Mr Xi said, adding that the two sides would “continue to manage contentious issues and promote maritime co-operation”.
Mr Duterte spoke of “deepening trust and confidence” between the two nations, and said he was “pleased with the current positive momentum of the Philippines-China relations”.
The area of the South China Sea off the Philippines’ Palawan island is thought to contain some of the region’s richest energy deposits, but the country has not been able to fully explore it because of pressure from China.
The Philippines suspended oil and gas exploration in the area indefinitely in 2015. Elsewhere in the region, Vietnam has faced pressure from Beijing over offshore drilling, causing Spain’s Repsol to suspend two projects.
Other memoranda of understanding, contracts and agreements signed on Tuesday included a deal to build a Chinese industrial park at Clark, a former US air base north-west of Manila, and the rebuilding and rehabilitation of Marawi, the southern city devastated last year during a battle between government forces and Islamist militants.