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Philippine Spokesman: No Challenge from Duterte Over Xi’s Rebuff on Sea Ruling

Froilan Gallardo and Jeoffrey Maitem
Manila and Cotabato, Philippines
2019-08-30
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Aug. 30, 2019.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Aug. 30, 2019.
Pool photo via AFP

President Rodrigo Duterte did not challenge Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping who rebuffed his attempt to discuss an international ruling over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, a spokesman for the Philippine leader said Friday about their meeting in Beijing a day earlier.

Duterte broached the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated Chinese claims to territory in the contested sea “in a friendly, assertive and unequivocal manner,” but Xi promptly declined to discuss the issue during their talks on Thursday night, Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.

This outcome should not affect friendly bilateral ties, he added.

Asked by reporters if Duterte had challenged Xi to change his mind about the matter not being open for negotiation, Panelo replied in the negative, saying the president was not surprised and appeared to anticipate his Chinese counterpart’s response.

“Well, I think he expected that, because from the very start, that was their position even prior to the visit. But, nevertheless, as he committed himself to the Filipino people and to Mr. Xi himself, he raised that issue,” Panelo told Filipino reporters in Beijing, a transcript of which was made available in Manila on Friday.

He said Duterte, who was making his fifth trip to China since he became president three years ago, did not press the matter any further.

“Our position is also the same, we are not changing ours,” Panelo said.

“And they both agreed after that, that should not be the sum total of the relationship between the two countries,” he said, referring to the South China Sea arbitration win.

Panelo said both leaders agreed to move past the conflict, and continue with a peaceful dialogue to solve the issue.

“Well, obviously what the president wanted was for them, for the Chinese government to recognize the arbitral ruling. But from the inception, the Chinese government did not recognize [it],” Panelo said.

“The president of China expressed, he said that he was not offended by the president raising that issue,” Panelo said, emphasizing that the meeting “went very well.”

Xi has been Duterte’s political benefactor since the Philippine leader took office in 2016, the year the ruling was handed down by the court in The Hague.

Duterte’s predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III, had taken China to court after Chinese ships effectively took control of Scarborough Shoal. The shoal in the South China Sea lies well within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and has been a traditional fishing ground for Filipino fishermen.

Instead of enforcing the ruling, which angered Beijing, Duterte moved to appease China by courting more investments from Asia’s biggest economy.

The Philippine president’s tact has been rewarded by billions of dollars in Chinese investments and pledges.

On Thursday, the presidential palace said that Duterte and Xi signed six economic agreements.

These included a memorandum of understanding on higher education cooperation; a cooperation agreement between the science and technology departments of the two countries; and a cooperation arrangement between the customs bureaus of the two countries.

The two countries also agreed on a contract for implementing agreements on inspection equipment; an exchange of notes on the cooperation procedure between the Philippine finance department and China’s International Development Agency; and a “preferential buyer’s” credit loan facility for Manila’s railway project to be funded by China.

‘We can have fresh impetus’

In his remarks during the meeting with Xi at a state guesthouse in Beijing, Duterte said ties between their countries could only get stronger, despite recent “challenges.”

“Today, we can have fresh impetus indeed for a stronger momentum to work together, that is determined steps needed along a common road that leads us to a strong and special relationship that is mutually, respectfully, collectively beneficial, and [decidedly] reciprocal,” Duterte said.

“To be sure, there had been challenges. Yet we are living out our commitment to define our ties as a comprehensive strategic cooperation,” he said, adding that with dialogue channels “fully opened,” along with signed agreements and projects under way, “there is a clear path of partnership and convergence.”

However, Panelo said, Duterte  demanded  sanctions against the crewmen of a Chinese trawler that hit a Filipino fishing vessel in the South China Sea in June, despite an apology given by the owner of the Chinese boat.

“I reiterate our desire for the filing or application of appropriate sanctions against the Chinese crew in the interest of achieving closure, manifesting good faith and demonstrating China’s resort to prevent a repeat of the incident,” Duterte said, according to Panelo.

Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, said Duterte likely used the bilateral talks with China to satisfy local opinion on the arbitration tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea as well as to leverage more concessions from the Asian superpower.

“He knows that the public opinion for us to make a stand in the arbitration went up. He only used it as a signal to get additional leverage for the aid and assistance,” he said, describing Duterte’s latest trip to China as “fruitful.”

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have overlapping territorial claims to the sea, which is vital to international shipping and trade.

The South China Sea has also become the scene of disputes between China and its neighbors over Beijing’s reported building of military installations on artificial islands it occupies, and incursions by Chinese ships into other nations’ exclusive economic zones.

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