Updated at 7:41 p.m. ET on 2019-08-29
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has discussed an international ruling invalidating Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who reiterated that his government would not budge on the matter, a Philippine official said Friday (local time).
The exchange took place on the second day of Duterte’s latest official visit to China, which the Philippine leader had said would serve as an occasion for him to bring up the 2016 U.N.-backed ruling, amid domestic criticism over his soft stance toward Beijing.
During a meeting at a state guesthouse in Beijing, Duterte raised concerns over Philippine territories in the disputed sea region, and said that the arbitral award in Manila’s favor “is final, binding and not subject to appeal,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
“In response, President Xi reiterated his government’s position of not recognizing the arbitral ruling as well as not budging from its position,” it said, adding that the two leaders agreed that “their variant positions” would not derail friendly ties between the two nations.
The two presidents went on to agree on working together to “manage the South China Sea issue” and on the importance of freedom of navigation in and overflight above the strategic waterway.
Duterte also raised possible joint exploration for mineral resources in the sea, and was told by Xi that “the steering committee created for that purpose should prepare a substantive program on the matter."
The Philippine leader furthermore “expressed appreciation” that a shipowner had agreed to compensate 22 fishermen who almost lost their lives when a Chinese trawler rammed their boat in a Philippine territory two months ago, in an incident that left Filipinos seething.
“It went very well," the statement quoted Duterte as saying of the meeting.
Hours before Duterte left for Beijing, the Philippine foreign affairs department said that the owner of the vessel had apologized through a letter, and offered compensation. Some nationalist groups dismissed the apology as long overdue and insincere, however.
‘A reservoir of good will’
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 incursion by Chinese vessels into other nation's excusive economic zones.
The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague found that China’s land reclamation and construction of “artificial islands, installations, and structures” at Mischief Reef had caused “severe, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem” and that its large-scale harvesting of sea life had further damaged the marine environment.
Pressure had been mounting on the Philippine leader to speak out against Beijing, his number one political and economic benefactor since he became president in 2016.
Hours before Duterte’s meetings with Xi, Manila’s envoy to Beijing, Jose Santiago Sta. Romana, said that Duterte had emphasized that “from his point of view, the time has come” to discuss the arbitral ruling as the Philippine president winds down the second half of his six-year term.
“I think the first three years he has exerted a lot of the diplomatic capital to build a reservoir of goodwill and friendship with President Xi,” Sta. Romana told Philippine reporters in Beijing, according to transcripts of the conversation released in Manila.
“And so he has decided that it’s the time to include in the diplomatic agenda and in the discussions sensitive issues that may have caused misunderstanding if they were brought up in the past,” he said.
Sta. Romana said that Duterte had actually mentioned the arbitral ruling to Xi several times in the past “but not in a direct or honest discussion as an exchange of views on the subject.”