Philippine Foreign Secretary Plays Down Duterte ‘War’ Comment on China

Felipe Villamor
2017.05.22
Manila
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170522-PH-leaders-1000 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and (top left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (top right) attend a signing ceremony following a bilateral meeting in Beijing, May 15, 2017.
AFP

As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte faced calls to take China to the United Nations for allegedly threatening him with war over the South China Sea, his foreign minister sought Monday to allay mounting public anxiety by suggesting that Beijing had been very accommodating.

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters that he would schedule calls to several senators and Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio so he could explain properly the revelation made by Duterte on national television on May 19.

While he could not reveal further details of what transpired between Duterte and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, their discussion that took place on the margins of an international conference hosted by Beijing last week “were about how to increase mutual trust and respect,” Cayetano said.

“There was no language or tone that would lead any of the two presidents to believe that there was disrespect for them or their country,” Cayetano said.

“It is but natural that when you talk about peace, and you talk about conflict, the word ‘war’ may or may not come up,” he said of meeting between the two leaders that took place on the sidelines of the One Belt, One Road conference.

President Duterte on Friday said he had told Xi that he wanted to enforce a ruling last year by the U.N.-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that invalidated China’s vast claims to the potentially-rich South China Sea region.

He said  he wanted to drill for energy exploration in the area, apparently referring to the Reed Bank, a potentially oil rich region the South China Sea that falls within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Xi, according to Duterte, told him that they could talk about the arbitration court’s ruling at a future date “but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.” Duterte said he was helpless in face of the threat, in what many analysts here said appeared to be Chinese aggression.

China’s ‘aggressive design’

The comment was questioned at the weekend by Carpio, who stressed that the threat was a “gross violation of the United Nations charter, UNCLOS (convention of the law of the sea), and the treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia to which China and the Philippines are parties.”

“China’s threat of war against the Philippines over the West Philippine Sea reveals the aggressive design of China against the Philippines,” Carpio said Saturday, using the Filipino name of the sea region.

“No less than Chinese President Xi Jingping has delivered the threat personally to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,” he said, calling it a “troubling development” that should concern all Filipinos.

Duterte could bring China’s threat of war to the U.N. General Assembly, where China has no veto powers, or he could take Beijing again to another UNCLOS tribunal to compel it to follow last year’s ruling.

The president said Reed Bank was vital to the country’s national interest, and had been identified as the only viable replacement to the Malampaya gas field off the coast of Palawan island. That supplies about 40 percent of energy requirements in Luzon, the Philippine archipelago’s main and most populous island, but experts have said it would run out of gas in about a decade.

“Unless the Philippines develops Reed Bank, Luzon will suffer 10 to 12 hours of brownouts daily 10 years from now. This will devastate the Philippine economy,” Carpio said.

Former foreign minister Albert del Rosario, under whose watch the Philippines won the arbitral ruling, said Monday the country should “revisit” plans to patrol the sea region with the United States, with whom it has a mutual defense treaty.

“Use of force as well as threats of use of force are serious violations of the U.N. Charter, and it is in our national interest to have the Philippines file this protest with the U.N. General Assembly," he said.

It was high time for the government to pursue a “defensive position” in the sea region, noting that the joint patrol initiative was “jettisoned by our incumbent government as being inconsistent with our new government’s full embrace of China,” he said.

‘We should stand up to China’

Alarmed by the fresh revelations, various lawmakers have also called on Duterte to explain them and for the government not to ignore the threat.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon said “this is a serious case" that should not be taken lightly.

“We should stand up to China. We should not allow our country to be bullied and threatened,” Drilon said.

But Cayetano said Duterte was apparently forced to divulge details of his meeting because being barraged by comments on what he should do in the face of perceived Chinese aggression.

“Of course if every day, for more than a week, you have been criticizing or telling him to do something else, he will have to give some kind of response,” Cayetano said.

He said Duterte and Xi “saw it in their wisdom” to postpone any decision on the sea dispute and wait for a “wiser generation” to come up with a solution.

“It was very frank discussion, mutual respect could be felt. In fact they would not be able to speak that frank with each other if there was no trust being developed,” Cayeteno said.

He said there was “no bullying or pushing around” and it was clear from the start that no one wanted the situation in the South China Sea to get out of hand.

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