PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte pivoted on his China stance on Monday and said the Philippines would set aside an international ruling in its favor during initial talks with Beijing on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute.
“I propose that we just have [a]soft landing everywhere. I will not use the judgment of the arbitral [tribunal]now,” he said in a speech during the National Heroes’ Day celebration at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Taguig.
Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua, who was among the dignitaries invited, looked pleased.
Duterte appealed to China to let Filipino fishermen fish at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a traditional fishing area that has been blocked off by the Chinese coast guard.
“I hope you treat us as your brothers, not your enemies and take note of the plight of our citizens,” Duterte said. “If we continue to treat each other like brothers and understand, especially the plight of the fishermen … the Chinese people this time will find a place in the hearts of the Filipinos.”
Zhao welcomed the President’s statement and reiterated Beijing’s objection to the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that nullified China’s historical claims to the West Philippine Sea.
On Duterte’s appeal for the fishermen, the Chinese envoy said: “We can discuss the possibility.”
For future use
The July 12 ruling upheld Manila’s rights to areas within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Bringing up the ruling, Duterte said, might only lead to the suspension of bilateral negotiations with China.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. earlier turned down the proposal of his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to disregard the arbitral ruling in formal discussions.
Duterte said, however, that the Philippines could still use the arbitral judgment in the future.
“I would one day sit in front of your representative or you and then I will lay bare my position and I would say that ‘This paper, I cannot get out of the four corners of this room, and that’s the arbitral judgment,’” the President told Zhao.
“But for now, Mr. Ambassador, I want to just talk to you for a moment. Maybe give us time to build our forces also,” he added, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
Zhao told reporters Manila and Beijing should change their focus away from the maritime dispute and toward “common interest.”
“We need to change our focus from differences to common interest so that we can concentrate on cooperation that will benefit our two people,” he said.
“We have been friends and partners and even relatives for over thousand years. Despite the troubles we have, we’re confident the friendship will be further deepened, the cooperation will be further enhanced,” he added.
President Duterte had named former President Fidel Ramos as special envoy to China, and the latter went to Hong Kong last August 8 for informal discussions with his Chinese contacts.
Ramos said his efforts would lead to formal discussions later on.