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China warns Duterte on SCS: We’ll go to war

Contrary to what critics believe, President Rodrigo Duterte raised with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping the ruling of a UN-backed arbitral court, which trashed Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea. AP/Ng Han Guan, Pool

Rody raises UN ruling with Xi: It’s ours

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Contrary to what critics believe, President Duterte raised with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping the ruling of a UN-backed arbitral court, which trashed Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea.

Xi’s response, Duterte said yesterday, was that if the Philippines forced the issue, China would go to war.

Duterte said that when he met with Xi in Beijing last week, he stressed that the West Philippine Sea “is ours and we intend to drill oil there.”

“Wala nang palaboy-laboy pa (Without much ado), I told the Chinese, if you think that it is yours, that is your view. But my view is that I can drill the oil  because it is ours,” the President said in remarks at the 33rd national convention of the Philippine Coast Guard here at the SMX Convention Center in SM Lanang Premier.

He said the Chinese officials were quick to point out that they also considered the West Philippine Sea as their territory:

“Their answer to me was, ‘We are friends and we do not want to quarrel with you and we want to maintain the present warm relationship we have,’ ” Duterte said, adding that Xi told him, “But if you force the issue, we go to war.”

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“What else can I say? Yon ang pinag-aawayan natin (That’s what we’re quarreling over),” Duterte said.

“I said it is ours and I will drill the oil. And I tell them do not do it because it is ours. But I have the arbitral ruling. But they said that if you force the issue, we will go to war,” he added.

He admitted he could not afford going to war with China as it would mean a massacre of Filipinos.

“If it is only me, then I would not do that because it would result in a massacre,” he pointed out.

Duterte also chided former foreign affairs chief Albert del Rosario for not calling for help from the US and other Southeast Asian nations to defend the country’s position against China.

“But instead of just filing a case, the Philippines should have called America and other ASEAN countries to nip it in the bud. And even without the arbitral ruling the constant law of the sea, you cannot build any structure. Bakit hindi nila ginawa noon (Why didn’t they do that then)?” he added.

He claimed that the former administration allowed the construction by the Chinese of garrisons in the West Philippine Sea.

Monitoring continues

A US military official said they are closely monitoring China’s military buildup in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.

Brig. Gen. Brian Cavanauch, US Assistant Balikatan exercise assistant director and deputy commander of the US Marines Corps Forces-Pacific, said that monitoring the Chinese activities in the South China Sea is part of their military training to ensure readiness.

“We keep on training and we are monitoring them,” Cavanauch said, in response to questions on whether the US military knows about China’s activities in the region.

He added the US would make sure freedom of navigation and overflight within the Indo-Pacific region continue.

In a published report, China has admitted installing rocket launchers at Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, one of three major artificial islands that Beijing has fortified.

Philippine Coast Guard Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, meanwhile, revealed a plane carrying transport and local officials flew over Pag-asa Island on Tuesday to inspect the possible site of a new lighthouse. He assured the Chinese there was nothing to worry about the flight.

“The lighthouse is for safety. This would not only be beneficial to the Filipino fishermen but for all types of vessels transiting the area,” said Tuason.

Draft framework ready

At the Department of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, spokesman Robespierre Bolivar revealed that the ASEAN finalized Thursday the draft framework for the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

The DFA said the draft is important even if it is not yet legally binding.

“The Philippines welcomes the finalization by ASEAN and China senior officials of the draft of the framework of the Code of Conduct,” Bolivar said.

The draft framework for the COC, for managing the region and in regulating the future behavior of the parties concerned in the South China Sea, will be presented to the foreign ministers of ASEAN and China at their post-ministerial conference in Manila in August for their consideration.

“The Philippines reaffirms its commitment to working towards an effective Code of Conduct for the South China Sea,” he added.

Bolivar said the final draft of the framework was agreed upon but “the issue of the nature of the COC will be discussed when negotiations on the actual COC begin, which is after the framework is approved by leaders at the November Summit in the Philippines.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said that while many countries would want the draft framework to specify that the COC should be legally binding, it would suffice at the beginning that it would have the power of a “gentlemen’s agreement.”

He explained that legally binding means there is a court or tribunal parties can run to if another party reneges on the agreement.

“So, let me say this: definitely, it should be binding. Now, the question, if it’s legally binding, which court can the parties go to? And the countries that don’t comply, will they respect that court? We’re all trying to avoid not only war, but instability,” Cayetano told reporters during a visit at the DFA Office of Consular Affairs on Macapagal Avenue when asked about the Philippine position and whether Manila would assert a legally binding COC.

Regional members have called for a legally binding code and ASEAN has been urged to make the South China Sea ruling an “integral” part of the Code of Conduct framework and the eventual COC.

“Many countries want it to be legally binding. But what I’m saying, let’s start with it being binding, gentlemen’s agreement. We have a community of nations that signed it,” Cayetano said.

He stressed that a mechanism should be put in place to resolve issues if some parties are not complying with the code.

“I’m telling you the practical reality of negotiations in international agreement. So, do most or all of the countries want it to be legally binding? Yes. But will the language include that? We don’t know. Because if one or two do not approve of that, they don’t believe that there can be an independent court, will we go for nothing, no Code of Conduct?” Cayetano said.

“Or will we agree to a code of conduct that will be enforced only by the community of nations who signed it?” he said.

The Philippines has also been urged to prevent China from using the framework for a Code of Conduct to preserve its unlawful expansion in the South China Sea.

In 2002, ASEAN and China committed to a non-binding Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), specifically on how claimants should behave in the South China Sea. 

Exploration

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said the Philippines is strategizing how to go about the joint oil and gas exploration in disputed seas.

“We are being pragmatic about it,” the energy chief said when asked about the possibility of a joint exploration in the West Philippine Sea.

“The same way, on the exploration, we are looking for a strategic solution that would be beneficial to Filipinos,” Cusi said, referring to the approach taken by Duterte to make the Chinese agree to the Filipino fishermen’s return to Panatag Shoal.

Chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo has said the Constitution allows the President to enter into agreements with foreign firms involved in exploration of mineral resources.

And conducting joint exploration does not necessarily mean conceding sovereignty over disputed waters, he said.

During the BusinessWorld Economic Forum yesterday, businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan stressed the need for the country to look for an alternative to the Malampaya gas project, which is expected to run out by 2024.

Pangilinan is chairman of PXP Energy Corp., which holds a 70 percent operating interest in Service Contract (SC) 72 or the contract to explore Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea through Forum Energy plc.

The company also has a direct operating interest of 50 percent in SC 75 in northwest Palawan. – Evelyn Macairan, Christina Mendez, Danessa Rivera, Jaime Laude

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