By Catherine S Valente/Manila Times
President Rodrigo Duterte assured the public he would not cede any territory to China, amid reports of Beijing’s construction activities in some of the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Duterte’s statement came after Manila halted construction at a Pag-asa Island sandbar because of a protest from Beijing.
Duterte is expected to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in bilateral talks at the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Danang, Vietnam. The sea dispute is also expected to be tackled anew in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Manila next week.
Speaking to reporters before leaving for Vietnam, Duterte said he would ask China “what it really wants,” saying Beijing should come clean before its dialogue partners in Asean.
“It’s about time that Asean countries, not really to confront, but (China should) make clear to us what (it) really wants,” he said. “I suppose that I’d bring the matter up because (everyone is) focused on the dangers of North Korea, regarding its sabre-rattling.”
“What are the stakes? You want to control the passage or do we have the free passage?” he added. Duterte reiterated the Philippines’ commitment to the peaceful settlement of its claims in the contested waters.
“Look, we are all for peaceful negotiations. It’s always a mouthful of leaders saying (we should be) rules-based, and the Unclos prescribes a peaceful resolution of conflicts of nations. We will stick to that,” Duterte said, referring to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“We are friends with China. At one moment in our life or the lives of the Filipinos, they were there to give us the arms when we had none and we were fighting it out in Marawi. These are the things that we cannot forget. But these things should not be used as, not really a pawn, but as bargaining chips on what is the greater interest of Southeast Asia and more particularly, the higher interest of our country,” he added.
Duterte also reiterated that if he would engage China, he would have to engage all the other claimants in the disputed waters.
Aside from the Philippines, Asean member-countries that are claimants to the disputed seas are Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Taiwan is also a claimant. The previous Aquino administration saw the Philippines filing a legal protest against China before a UN-backed arbitration tribunal, which Beijing refuses to recognise.
But when Duterte assumed office last year, Philippine foreign policy leaned toward Beijing, and the president vowed not to insist on the Philippines’ legal victory against China in exchange for greater economic co-operation and aid. Duterte said he would also raise the South China Sea issue during his meeting with US President Donald Trump in Vietnam, lest the matter be set aside because of the focus on the Korean nuclear crisis.
“Trump now is busy talking about, you know, it’s all (bluster). The real reason really is geopolitics. Nobody wants a war. I am very sure of that. China does not want it because if there is a bomb dropped somewhere in Korea, it will be a meltdown for the rest of Asia and Southeast Asia,” Duterte said.
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