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After talking to China, Duterte says he'll skip South China Sea visit

President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a meeting with the Filipino community in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on April 12, 2017. Duterte is on a three-day visit to meet Saudi leaders for investment, trade and support for overseas Filipino workers in the Kingdom. AFP/Fayez Nureldine

RIYADH – Saying he values the Philippines' friendship with China, President Duterte said on Thursday that he is no longer pushing through with his plan to go to Pag-asa Island in the South China Sea on Independence Day.

Duterte revealed that China had asked him not to celebrate Independence Day and raise the flag on Pag-asa Island, the largest among the Philippine-occupied areas in the disputed Spratlys chain.

"China said: ‘what will happen if every head of state will go there to (assert their) claim? They said if every head of state of contending parties there around the West Philippine Sea, they call it the (South) China Sea, will go there to plant the flag, there will likely be trouble," the president told members of the Filipino community here. 

"So because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship, I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag," he added.

Duterte did not say how China communicated its concerns to him.

The president said he might just send one of his sons to the Independence Day rites in Pag-asa, which is under Palawan's fifth class town Kalayaan.

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It was not clear who among Duterte's two sons would represent him during the event and whether he is serious when he made the statement. Duterte's eldest son Paolo is the vice mayor of Davao City while his youngest son Sebastian is a businessman.

Duterte has said he may spend this year's Independence Day in Pag-asa, which is inhabited by about 180 people. He has also promised to allot funds for the improvement and repair of the runway in the island.

Duterte has also ordered the military to build structures on the nine Philippine-controlled islands in the South China Sea to make a "strong point" about the country's ownership of these areas.

A show of 'goodwill'

The president, who has been accused of being too soft on China, promised not to visit any of the South China Sea islands being controlled by the Philippines.

Because of the goodwill and friendship you've shown to us, I will not go to any of the islands," he said, referring to China's promise to support the Philippines' development projects.

The Philippines occupies nine islets in the Spratlys, the subject of a longstanding maritime dispute in the region.

Aside from Pag-asa, the Philippines controls the Ayungin Shoal, Lawak Island, Parola Island, Patag Island, Kota Island, Rizal Reef, Likas Island and Panata Island.

These isles are also being claimed by China, which claims to have historic rights over about virtually the entire South China Sea, a key shipping route for about $5 trillion worth of goods.

China's expansive claim, which covers 90 percent of the South China Sea, overlaps with that of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan. But the claim has been declared as invalid by a Hague-based arbitral court, which acted on a complaint filed by the Philippine government in 2013.

China has rejected the decision, calling it "illegal" and "a mere piece of paper."

Duterte has said that he was willing to set aside the arbitral ruling that favored the Philippines as he seeks to improve Manila's relationship with Beijing.

The president has also vowed not to surrender the Philippines' rights in the South China Sea, a critical global trade route, part of which the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea.

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