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Duterte hopeful China will stop expansion in disputed sea

Speaking to reporters upon his return from his second visit to Japan, President Rodrigo Duterte said he remains optimistic that China will stop new expansions in South China Sea under a deal brokered by both Manila and Beijing. Richard Madelo/Presidential Photo, file

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday said he is hopeful that China will keep its promise to stop the occupation of new features in the disputed South China Sea as he reiterated anew his strategy to settle the maritime row: Don’t insult the superpowers.

The Philippines claims parts of the South China Sea within its exclusive economic zone and calls it the West Philippine Sea.

Speaking to reporters upon his return from his second visit to Japan, Duterte said he remains optimistic that China will stop new expansions in South China Sea under a deal brokered by both sides.

Asked about his response should China decide not to honor its promise, Duterte said the question should be answered by Beijing, not him. 

“China has put it on record, that near the Pag-asa, where we also have our bay there, the Scarborough Islands, China has committed to us not to build anything there and I hope that they would honor that commitment to us,” Duterte said.

“I have been clear on this. I did not grab anything, but this is mine," he said, referring to waters and features within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

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In 2013, Duterte’s predecessor filed a case in a United Nations-backed tribunal against China’s sweeping claims to over most part of the resource-rich sea.

The court said in 2016 that China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by blocking fishing and oil exploration as well as by building reclaimed islands there.

‘Don’t criticize big powers’

But Duterte sought warmer relations with Beijing in exchange for billion dollars’ worth of Chinese investments while berating and moving away from Washington — Manila’s traditional treaty ally and China’s strategic rival.

In the same media interview on Tuesday, Duterte nonetheless gave an assurance that he will raise the maritime issue to his Chinese counterpart within his term to discuss “what is really in store for us all.”

He also said the Philippines is not ready to go to war against China, adding that “talking” to Beijing remains his key strategy in solving the sea row in order to not upset the Asian power.

“I hope we will reach that stage. And China is a good listener. Okay?” Duterte said.

“Once I commit to you as a President of a sovereign state, what comes out of my mouth is what it is. And it’s always a commitment with honor,” he also said.

“You can read all the legal treaties there claiming this and claiming that. But the problem, I said, is I do not want to criticize the big powers now because it was really of their own making,” he added.

Last month, Duterte, who chairs this year’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said he finds no urgency in managing the longstanding sea dispute that has dogged both China and the region.

Duterte added that he was in favor of sharing resources in the South China Sea. His explanation for possible joint exploration hinted at a willingness to open exclusive economic zones to foreign parties.

READ: Duterte finds no urgency in South China Sea row | Duterte may push for resource-sharing in disputed sea at ASEAN meet

The Philippines last April hosted the 30th ASEAN summit, which was highlighted by a watered-down communique that evaded reference to China’s maritime encroachment in the South China Sea.

China is sensitive to even a veiled reference by ASEAN to its seven reclaimed reefs, which, according to some experts, have the capability to accommodate warplanes and military facilities.

READ: Palawan within range of China's jets, missiles in South China Sea

Analysts earlier expressed disappointment over ASEAN’s apparent soft stance on China’s aggressive activities in the sea—with some saying this response could embolden Beijing to step up its incursion in the area, thereby undermining the bloc's centrality.

In an apparent move to counter China’s growing influence on Manila, which plays a key role in the South China Sea dispute, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday vowed to deliver nearly P60 billion worth of loans during Duterte’s visit there.

According to Duterte, he discussed maritime security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea with Abe. “But always, we can resolve it by just talking,” the Philippine leader said.

READ: Defense chiefs back freedom of navigation in South China Sea

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