Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AFP/Mark Cristino

Manila and Beijing have made a big step towards consummating an agreement to jointly explore energy resources in the South China Sea, as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte continues his quest to cement closer ties with China.

The signing of the framework agreement was witnessed by Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was in the Philippines for a state visit, Bloomberg reported, citing local television coverage.

“The President and I agreed to elevate our relationship to one of comprehensive strategic cooperation,” Xi was quoted as saying during a press briefing with Duterte. “This vision charts a clear course for Philippine-China relations and sends a message to the world: that our two countries are partners in seeking common development.”

Before Xi arrived for the visit, Philippine lawmakers demanded that Duterte release details of the energy deal.

“Signing the Chinese deal will make the Philippines recognize an unlawful ‘co-ownership’ with China,” minority senators said in a resolution, according to Reuters.

The Senators went as far as to say that such a joint development agreement would be a violation of the constitution and could lead to impeachment.

On Tuesday, Salvador Panelo, a spokesperson for the Duterte administration, defended remarks from the president which asserted that China is “already in possession” of the South China Sea.

“That’s a reality,” Panelo said during an interview on Philippine television, per The Inquirer.

“What he is saying is, we have to exercise self-restraint because any conflict that arises in that region will definitely affect us, as I said earlier, it could be inflaming collateral damage or creating inferno,” he said.

“Why? Because the US keeps provoking China and I don’t think China will just sit down and be idle.  It will have to do something about it,” he added.

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