IT was, you might say, fortuitous that President Rodrigo Duterte decided to use a private jet instead of chartering a passenger plane for his recent fifth visit to China. By this, the costs of this mission to the national treasury were considerably reduced, and national expectations from the visit could similarly be lowered.
As things now stand, Malacañang is hard put to find the words and the basis to describe the recent trip to China as a success. No matter how much Filipino officials strain to locate evidence of success, they come up with very little of significance.
They do not have the usual dollars and cents to tout, whereby the value of previous presidential trips abroad were reckoned.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo tried gamely to be positive. He reported that, true to his word, President Duterte was “steadfast in raising with President Xi [Jinping] concerns central to the Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), which includes the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July 2016. He said the arbitral award was final, binding and not subject to appeal.
Other officials pointed to certain agreements that were signed during the visit as concrete achievements.
In truth, only three things really happened during the recent presidential visit to China.
First, during his meeting with President Xi in Beijing, President Duterte raised the subject of the arbitral ruling of The Hague arbitration court.
The Chinese president rejected the ruling out outright and reiterated China’s position of non-recognition of the arbitral ruling.
The response was to be expected, without need of discussion, because the July 2016 Hague arbitral court ruling invalidated China’s “nine-dash line” map, by which it claimed historic rights over the entire South China Sea as part of its sovereign territory.
Second, President Duterte had a one-on-one meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. During the meeting, the two leaders agreed that their two countries would work together for the approval and signing of a binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations before the end of President Duterte’s term in 2022.
Third, during the visit, President Duterte attended and watched a basketball match in the ongoing FIBA World Cup in Shanghai, during which the Philippine team played against Italy, and which our side lost.
All told, it is difficult to say that the presidential trip accomplished anything of significance in the context of China-Philippines relations. Nor did it advance the two sides forward on questions and issues that have recently divided them.
Realistically, this presidential visit did not change in any manner the state of Philippines-China relations from where it was before our president went to Beijing. China remains obdurate about its claims to nearly all of the South China Sea. And the Philippines persists in claiming a victory from the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in 2016.
In our view, this is a situation where our government needs to reassess and reformulate its position on the core issues dividing our governments in their rival claims in the South China Sea.
We can take the arbitral ruling for what it is, a tremendous propaganda weapon for criticizing China’s extravagant claims, and keep on publicizing it before the world. But then we must also realize that China, under President Xi will persist in its claims over the South China Sea.
In some respect, it’s not unlike the inflexible positions in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.
They are still vainly looking for a way to negotiate an agreement in their conflict.
And we in turn are still puzzling for a way forward in our divisions over the waters of the South China Sea.