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For Duterte, pressuring China with arbitral award is 'all dreams'

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, right, of Brunei and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, chat as they walk for their bilateral meeting following welcoming ceremony for the Sultan Thursday, April 27, 2017 at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines. Bolkiah arrived Wednesday for a state visit and to attend the annual ASEAN Leaders' Summit which the Philippines is hosting this weekend. AP/Bullit Marquez

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte dismissed the idea that the Philippines can pressure China through international opinion by raising the country's legal victory on the South China Sea, saying those who want him to do so are dreaming.

Duterte also shrugged off China's artificial islands within Philippine-claimed waters as a "non-issue" while speaking to reporters at Malacañan two days before the ASEAN leaders' summit in Manila.

"It cannot be an issue anymore, (the islands) are already there. What would be the purpose of discussing it when we cannot do anything?" Duterte said.

When a reporter suggested that international pressure can mount on China, Duterte said: "(We) cannot do that, you're just dreaming. Those are theories that you are dreaming (of), that's really the Obama style. All dreams."

For the Philippine leader, who is known to be friendly with Beijing and Moscow but hostile to Washington, the United States did not try to stop China when it started reclaiming disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea in 2013.

Duterte's views did not consider that the US has been condemning and challenging China's military buildup in the key trade route.

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ALSO READ: Blatant gaps seen in Duterte's South China Sea policy

Duterte has insisted that the award should take a back seat as his government resets direct talks with China on the issue. This is despite the nod of a tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that effectively ruled out China's expansive claims in July last year,

"China has already said, 'We will not honor (the ruling). So why would you insist that here, here it is," Duterte said, who then made a slapping sound and let out an expletive. "You're looking for trouble. Now, are you preparing for trouble? That's the problem."

He added that the best way to deal with China is by talking. "That's the only luxury we have, talking. Action? Tell us how. Tell me. Educate me how."

Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, opted to file an arbitration case against China after direct negotiations proved to be futile. China has long insisted on joint exploration and development within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Downplaying the award

The president, a former Davao City prosecutor, also appeared to be confused over legal terms used in the landmark ruling that covered the Philippines' jurisdiction over several shoals and reefs in the Spratlys. While he tried to explain that the award does not rule on "territorial" claims, he erred in saying it also did not have a say on jurisdiction.

"Entitlements lang ang question d'yan sa arbitral, hindi jurisdiction (Only entitlements are questioned in the arbitral award, not jurisdiction). Not even territory. It is outside of our territory, but it is part of our... exclusive economic zone," Duterte said.

"How will you raise the issue? It's a non-issue. Why insist on it... no one will listen to you," he continued.

The UN-backed tribunal's verdict found that China violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by interfering with Philippine fishing activities and mineral exploration and by constructing islands.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, one of the most vocal champions of the Philippines' claims, warned the government last month against issuing statements and actions that waive the country's rights in the South China Sea.

“Avoid any act, statement or declaration that expressly or impliedly waives Philippine sovereignty to any Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea. This will preserve for future generations of Filipinos their national patrimony in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

Duterte previously promised that he would raise the arbitral award with China at some point during his term as president.

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