MANILA -- President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping have agreed in principle on a joint exploration in the South China Sea, greenlighting the controversial project with their highest diplomatic endorsement.
Both leaders held a bilateral meeting on April 10 on the sidelines of the Boao Forum in the southern Chinese province of Hainan, where Duterte was one of the speakers.
"They are now offering joint exploration, and [that's] from the mouth of the President of China," Duterte said early Friday after arriving from the four-day trip, which also took him to Hong Kong.
It was the first time both leaders agreed on a possible joint exploration in the disputed area after Chinese and Filipino diplomats agreed to cooperate on maritime projects, such as oil and natural gas exploration, during a formal bilateral consultations in February.
"How important was that statement made by the two leaders?" asked Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano at a news conference in Hong Kong on April 11. "Very important, because it's basically the go-signal to come up with a framework. And if it's acceptable to both sides, then we could see the joint exploration done soon."
Manila and Beijing have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, but Duterte has opted to cooperate with China and set aside a 2016 Philippine arbitration victory, which ruled that China's claims in the waterway had no legal basis.
Duterte said on Friday it was "not appropriate" to discuss the dispute.
Cayetano said the Philippines and China are working on a legal framework that could pave the way for a joint exploration.
But collaborating with China is viewed by many in the Philippines as caving to Beijing, which has maintained "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea. Activists have asked the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional a 2007 joint seismic maritime undertaking entered into by the Philippines, China and Vietnam.
A joint exploration between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea, especially in the disputed areas, could complicate regional talks for a code of conduct in the area -- a set of rules aimed at managing tensions in the region.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam also have overlapping claims in the disputed waterway, and Indonesia, while it doesn't consider itself a claimant, has stepped up security on its maritime boarder where Chinese boats have been caught fishing.
However, a joint oil and gas exploration could enhance the growing bilateral relationship between the two former maritime foes. Duterte came home with 3.8 billion pesos ($73 million) in aid from Beijing and over $9 billion investment commitments from Chinese companies. During his first visit to China in 2016, Duterte bagged $24 billion worth of credit and investment pledges.
Duterte has pivoted to his Asian neighbors, especially China and Russia, which have ignored human rights issues on the president's brutal war on drugs, wherein thousands of suspects have been killed by police.
In contrast, Duterte has distanced himself from traditional allies like the U.S and E.U, which have expressed concerns over the killings.
Duterte said the country's "destiny lies in Asia," and he needs China to fund development.
"More than anybody else at this time of our national life, I need China," Duterte said on April 9 before leaving for Hainan.
"Anyway, I just simply love Xi Jinping. He understands my problem and he's willing to help," he added. "And I'd like to say, 'Thank you China.'"