INCOMING President Rodrigo Duterte may be the key to the thawing of frosty ties between the Philippines and China, analysts said on Thursday.
Professor Jay Batongbakal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said a recent exchange of friendly remarks between the countries’ leaders ushers in the possibility of better ties.
“At this point, it’s really too early to tell. But of course, there’s [such]a possibility given that [Duterte agrees to what China is asking for],” he said.
Professor Richard Javad Heydarian of the De La Salle University, said China is warming up to Duterte’s friendly overtures.
“Clearly the incoming Administration is exploring ways to restore frayed relations with China to pave the way for improved bilateral investment ties and a mutually satisfactory modus vivendi in the West Philippine Sea. We already see that China, reportedly after Duterte met the Chinese ambassador, has relaxed its restriction on Filipino fishermen traversing the Scarborough shoal area as a gesture of (supposed) good will to the incoming Duterte government, which has signaled less dependence on America and more engagement with China,” Heydarian said.
Duterte had described Chinese President Xi Jinping a great leader, while incoming Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said recently the maritime dispute between the two countries may be resolved through bilateral talks.
Duterte’s policy on China veers from the stance of the Aquino Administration, which ruled out bilateral talks after filing a memorial at an international arbitral tribunal questioning Beijing’s claim on almost the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Canada on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) he welcomed a possible warming of relations with the Philippines.
Speaking after Duterte heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping, Wang Yi told a news conference in Ottawa that “the door of dialogue between China and the Philippines is always open.”
“If the Philippines sincerely wants to come back to the track of dialogue and negotiations, we welcome that,” he said.
“China and the Philippines properly handling disputes through direct dialogue and consultations is helpful for breaking a deadlock in the bilateral relations in recent years,” Wang added.
He was in Ottawa for meetings with his counterpart Stephane Dion and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Duterte on Tuesday described Xi as “a great president,” in a hint that frosty relations between the Asian neighbors could soon warm.
With a ruling expected in the coming weeks, the Philippines’ response will probably be left to Duterte, who takes office on June 30.
Unlike Aquino, the incoming Philippine President has expressed willingness to engage China in bilateral talks on the issue.
He, however, has also played to Filipinos’ nationalist sentiment by saying he would ride a jet ski to plant a Philippine flag on disputed islands in the South China Sea.
In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying hailed Yasay for his recent conciliatory note that tensions in the West Philippine Sea can only be eased if Manila holds bilateral talks with Beijing.
“I don’t think there is any other way of resolving this except talking to each other,” Yasay said in an interview earlier this week.
Hua said “the Chinese side welcomes the remarks by Mr. Yasay” and urged the new Philippine government to work with China to properly deal with the festering sea row.
She noted that the two countries have agreed in meetings and political documents to peacefully resolve the maritime dispute through direct and bilateral talks.
Such agreement, Hua said, was also outlined in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
“It is hoped that the new government of the Philippines will abide by the relevant consensus and commitment, return to the track of bilateral dialogue, work with China to properly deal with the relevant differences and strive for the sound and steady development of bilateral relations,” she added.
Outgoing Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Almendras agreed that the Philippines and China can settle their long-standing maritime row through arbitration.
Manila filed the memorial in 2013 to seek a ruling on its right to the West Philippine Sea after Beijing refused to withdraw its ships from a disputed shoal.
It argued that China’s claims to the waters do not conform with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and should be declared invalid.
Almendras cited the Bay of Bengal case between India and Bangladesh also before the PCA as a proof that arbitration is a viable dispute settlement mechanism.
The 2014 decision on the delimitation of the maritime boundary between India and Bangladesh settled a 40-year dispute, with both countries saying they would abide by the decision.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs said the closure to the long pending issue enhanced mutual understanding and goodwill between the neighbors.
On the West Philippine Sea issue, however, China had insisted that the PCA has no jurisdiction and its ruling would be invalid under international law.
It said it will not abide by the tribunal’s ruling, which is highly expected to favor the Philippines.
The remark was made by Almendras when he welcomed a 16-member senior delegation from India’s National Defense College (NDC).
Their meeting highlighted prospects of deeper and more meaningful Philippine-India ties, particularly on the rule of law and in defense and security.
During the courtesy call by the NDC delegation, headed by Major General Sunil Srivastava SDS (Army-II), Almendras described cooperation between the Philippines and India as “growing” and said historical links and shared values should give bilateral relations renewed stronger momentum.
Citing the need for collaboration between nations in an inter-connected world, he said India was the Philippines’ partner and friend.