President Rodrigo Duterte believes that now is the best time to hold bilateral talks with China since an international arbitral tribunal has issued its ruling on a case filed by the Philippines against Beijing, according to Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno.
“Ang sabi nya [President Duterte said], we’ll start the bilateral talks and now we’re starting from a better position because of that decision,” Diokno said on Thursday.
He added that Duterte informed his Cabinet during Tuesday’s meeting that the Philippine government is willing to negotiate with China.
Also, Diokno said, the President told them to be “magnanimous in victory.”
“Asar na asar na nga ang kalaban mo, tapos aasarin mo pa. Ang mahirap talaga sa decision na iyon [Your rival is pissed, there’s no need to piss him more. The only problem with the decision] is the enforceability,” the Budget chief quoted the President as saying.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre 2nd confirmed that the holding of bilateral talks was tackled by the Cabinet.
“That was when we were discussing the different responses or options which the Philippines may take after the ruling was issued. We have to talk with China. We could not avoid it,” Aguirre said.
Duterte met with his Cabinet officials in Malacañang an hour after the UN international tribunal released its ruling on the case.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague said China has no historical rights to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and that it violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by constructing artificial islands and preventing Filipinos to fish in the area.
Duterte earlier said he intends to continue backing multilateral efforts– including Asean’s own initiatives–to settle disputes with China.
China, however, refused to back down on its stance of rejecting the ruling.
On Thursday, local television reported that the Chinese Coast Guard prevented Filipinos from fishing in the West Philippine Sea.
Filipino fishermen had hoped that with the tribunal’s ruling, they would be able to go back to their traditional fishing grounds unhindered. Chinese vessels had in the past driven away Filipino small fishermen.
In March, China sent seven ships to Quirino Atoll (Jackson Atoll), denying Filipinos access to their fishing grounds.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will not issue a statement on the rejection of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea by the UN tribunal, regional diplomats said also on Thursday, blaming the no-comment on pressure by Beijing.
The Asean had weighed whether to speak out on the ruling, Southeast Asian diplomats with knowledge of the matter said.
But the 10-member regional bloc, whose unity has increasingly come under strain in the shadow of Beijing’s expanding presence in the South China Sea, could not find common ground on the highly sensitive issue involving its massive and powerful neighbor, the diplomats added.
“Asean officials had prepared a draft text but there was no agreement to release a joint statement,” a Southeast Asian diplomat said, adding that China was believed to have leaned on its Asean allies Laos and Cambodia to scuttle any statement.
“Some Asean countries are definitely not happy. Beijing’s action can be seen as interference in Asean’s centrality,” the source said.
Another senior Southeast Asian diplomat said China has “succeeded in splitting Asean through its allies on the South China Sea issue,” referring to Laos and Cambodia.
Chinese pressure was blamed last month for a startling diplomatic U-turn by Asean, which swiftly disowned a joint statement released by Malaysia after an Asean-China meeting.
That statement had expressed alarm over Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea and the fiasco highlighted the bloc’s inability to maintain a united front against Chinese expansionism.
China claims nearly all of the highly strategic sea — home to some of the world’s most important shipping routes — and has steadily strengthened its toehold by converting reefs and sandbars into islands.
Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam, as well as Taiwan, have competing claims to parts of the resource-rich sea.
While the Philippines and Vietnam have been particularly critical of China, Laos and Cambodia have been generally regarded as preferring to side with their giant neighbor and benefactor.
Laos is this year’s Asean chairman.
Cambodia had said even before the tribunal ruling that it would take no part in any joint Asean comment, effectively ruling out a statement since the bloc does not speak without full consensus.
Lauro Baja, former Foreign Affairs undersecretary for policy and Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said the Philippines should instead concentrate on seeking support from individual Asean members.
“We experienced it already. If the Philippines wants to involve Asean, it should concentrate on Asean member-countries, not Asean as an organization because we will not get it. The impression is negative. There is no unity,” Baja noted.
“There was no consensus. A statement cannot be issued even if only one member is objecting,” he said in a telephone interview. “Who are objecting? Of course, the usual suspects.”
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. also on Thursday said he will work for Asean to come up with a unified statement on the matter.
“We already have the full support of many of the international community members. But it will also be important for the Asean to have a unified statement,” Yasay added in an interview.
He is in Mongolia for the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem), representing Duterte in the summit that gathers 53 leaders from Asia and Europe.
In a news release, the Department of Foreign Affairs said Yasay will discuss within the context of Asem’s agenda the Philippines’ peaceful and rules-based approach on the West Philippine Sea and the need for parties to respect the decision of the UN tribunal.
“Our actions will not be dependent on what any country would want us to do. We will always be acting in the best national interest,” Yasay said.
WITH MICHAEL JOE T. DELIZO AND AFP