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Sensitive Philippine comments on sea feud aired partly on TV

President Rodrigo Duterte holds his first Cabinet meeting being held at the Aguinaldo State Dining Room of the Malacañan Palace. Malacañang Photo Bureau

MANILA, Philippines — The new Philippine foreign secretary made sensitive remarks Thursday about territorial disputes in the South China Sea that were broadcast live by the state-run TV network before it abruptly cut away from its coverage of the new president's first Cabinet meeting.

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay's remarks during the meeting touched on how the government should respond to a much-anticipated international arbitration ruling on July 12.

The Philippines brought its long-simmering disputes with China in the South China Sea to international arbitration in January 2013 after Beijing took control of disputed Scarborough Shoal following a standoff.

After Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as president Thursday, he called his first Cabinet meeting, where he expressed the need for the Philippines to fully study the impact of the ruling, whether favorable or not.

Yasay spoke about an apparent wish by some foreign governments for Manila to issue a stronger statement about the dispute if the tribunal rules favorably. "I am adverse to that idea," he told Duterte and fellow Cabinet members, echoing the president's remarks on the need for the government to further study the ruling's repercussions.

"There are lots of nuances that we do not know as yet," Yasay said.

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"But the bottom-line question is what will happen if the decision is in our favor," Yasay said, adding that China could potentially "dig in and put us to a test." If that happens, he said, "there is no point for us to yell."

Journalists covering the president asked his spokesman why the delicate discussion was conducted on nationwide television, and if it was a mistake, but there was no immediate government explanation.

Analyst Richard Heydarian of Manila's De La Salle University said the Philippines "is in the middle of a geopolitical chessboard, therefore, we have to exercise maximum discretion in discussing strategic options in the South China Sea, especially after the arbitration case is concluded."

Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, has said the United States brokered a deal for China and the Philippines to simultaneously withdraw their ships from the fishing region around Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines complied but China reneged on the agreement and its ships continue to guard the shoal, Philippine officials say.

In its arbitration complaint, the Philippines questioned the validity of China's vast territorial claims under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It also asked the arbitration tribunal in The Hague to classify whether several disputed areas were islands or low-tide coral outcrops to determine the stretch of territorial waters they project.

China has argued against the tribunal's authority to hear the Philippine complaint, but the tribunal ruled last year that it has jurisdiction and will rule on the case. The United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines, and several other Western and Asian governments have called on China to comply with any decision.

During the administration of former President Gloria Arroyo, a crisis meeting called to discuss strategies to resolve the abduction of a Filipino hostage abroad was accidentally televised by the government network, but was cut off air after the mistake became apparent. Arroyo angrily reprimanded the network personnel who were involved, her officials said.

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