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Ex-top diplomat: Duterte's China shift a 'national tragedy'

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech during the Philippines-China Trade and Investment Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. China and the Philippines have agreed to resume a dialogue on their dispute over the South China Sea, a senior Chinese diplomat said Thursday following talks between the countries' leaders. (Wu Hong/Pool Photo via AP)

MANILA — A former top Filipino diplomat, who brought the triumphant arbitration case against China over territorial disputes, said yesterday the Philippine president's declaration to pivot away from Washington to Beijing should be regarded "a national tragedy."

"The declared shift in foreign policy, casting aside a long-time reliable ally to hastily embrace an aggressive neighbor that vehemently rejects international law, is both unwise and incomprehensible," said former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.

"What is unfolding before us must be considered a national tragedy, which does not need to happen," he said in a statement.

The criticism by del Rosario, a respected Asian diplomat, is among the strongest so far of President Rodrigo Duterte's publicly declared policy to back away from America, his country's longtime treaty ally, while reaching out to China and Russia. His main political ally, former President Fidel Ramos, has also criticized Duterte's profane tirades against President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

At an economic forum Thursday in Beijing, Duterte declared "my separation from the United States ... both in military and economics also." His pronouncement was met with applause, but Duterte did not explain what he exactly intended to do and when.

His accompanying Cabinet officials tried to downplay his remarks soon afterward, saying the Philippines would not cut off trade ties with the US, one of the country's largest trading partners, aid providers and a treaty ally. The differing pronouncements have stirred confusion and uncertainties.

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"There is no rush for us to interpret the speech of the president," presidential spokeswoman Marie Banaag said in a daily news briefing in Manila. "We have to wait for guidelines."

Ahead of his China visit, Duterte made a series of pronouncements to curb Philippine security engagements with the US, including the removal of American counterterrorism forces in the country's south and his opposition to planned joint patrols with the US Navy in the South China Sea. He also wanted to stop annual joint combat exercises the Philippines hosted alongside the US military that China opposes.

Duterte has said he did not want to embroil the Philippines in an unwinnable war with China, which could instead be tapped as a major trading partner and source of development funds.

US officials said they have not received any formal Philippine notice of Duterte's pronouncements, adding the longtime alliance benefits both countries and should continue to blossom.

As the foreign secretary of Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, del Rosario spearheaded the filing of an arbitration case that challenged the validity of China's claims to virtually the entire South China Sea. The tribunal invalidated China's claims under a 1982 UN treaty, an embarrassing defeat that Beijing has ignored.

The US and its Western and Asian allies have called on China to respect the outcome.

"We must be with responsible nations with whom we share our core values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law," said del Rosario, who also served as Manila's ambassador to Washington. "To stand otherwise, is not what Filipinos are, it is not what we do, it is not what is right."

At the end Duterte's trip yesterday, both countries said in a joint statement several trade and business deals and closer cooperation on a range of concerns and added both sides resumed dialogue on the South China Sea issues.

There was no mention of the arbitration ruling or Duterte's call for China to respect the rights of Filipinos to fish in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, where Beijing's coast guard ships continue to block and drive them away. But both sides agreed to continue talking.

"Without prejudice to other mechanisms, a bilateral consultation mechanism can be useful, which will meet regularly on current and other issues of concern to either side on the South China Sea," the joint statement said.

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