PRESIDENT-elect Rodrigo Duterte said the country’s territorial dispute with China over some shoals and reefs in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is no reason for him to engage the mainland in a shooting war even with the backing of the US military.
During his speech at the Davao City Business Forum on Tuesday, the incoming President made his policy clear against further fanning the conflict over such a “little” issue as the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
“I will not go to war [just]because of Scarborough Shoal. The shoal is not a territorial issue but [involves]exclusivity [of]economic zones,” he explained,
Duterte said he will wait for the judgment of an international arbitration court on a complaint filed by the Philippines against China before deciding on his next move.
“We will wait for the arbitral judgment, then I will decide,” he told his audience.
The court is expected to hand down its ruling in July.
Duterte criticized the outgoing administration of President Benigno Aquino 3rd for giving priority to acquisition of expensive items such as FA-50 fighter jets instead of using the money for more practical purposes.
“It’s a waste of money. Insurgency is the problem at the moment. The aircraft [FA-50] are only used for ceremonial fly-bys,” he pointed out.
The incoming leader said the funds spent on the FA-50s would have been used to procure more “fast boats” and choppers with “night vision capabilities.”
“One purpose for buying [them]is to match the air power of China one to one. But beyond Scarborough, there are 300 MIGs… and your battleground will be Palawan,” Duterte said.
The FA-50 acquisition was among the priorities of the Aquino administration under the military modernization program.
The Defense department had entered into various questionable contracts, including procurement of 21 defective UH-1D helicopters that was the subject of congressional investigations.
One of the questioned units crashed and burned last year in a rescue operation.
Also on Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Rene Almendras warned former senior career diplomats against making statements that are contrary to the government’s position on the South China Sea issue.
Former Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rosario Manalo and former Philippine Representative to the United Nations Lauro Baja earlier said that Manila should hold bilateral talks with Beijing to ease maritime tensions.
Manalo led the High-Level Task Force on Asean Charter, while Baja represented the Philippines in negotiations for Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea.
In an interview with The Manila Times, Almendras said there are certain “conventions in diplomacy” that require diplomats to abide by certain opinions.
“For example, I will never make a diplomatic comment when I’m no longer a secretary of Foreign Affairs because it impacts the country,” he added.
The Aquino administration has refused to hold bilateral talks with China and instead filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague to question China’s excessive nine-dash line claim.
The ruling will be handed down on July 7, according to a source.
But Baja insisted that he can advocate for anything “without government restrictions.”
“I don’t know what convention he [referring to Almendras]is talking about. What’s the matter with him? I doubt very much if there is a convention that stops any diplomat [from voicing his or her opinion on foreign policy matters],” he said.
Baja argued that even incoming Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. wanted to pursue bilateral talks with China.
“So what’s the matter with the current secretary?” he asked.
Manalo was not available to comment on Almendras’ statement as she is currently at the United Nations in New York to campaign for a seat at the UN Committee to Monitor Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
WITH MICHAEL JOE T. DELIZO