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Duterte describes China’s Xi as great leader

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – A “great leader” is how president-elect Rodrigo Duterte has described Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose congratulatory message has warmed his heart and signaled possible improvement in Philippine-China relations strained by the South China Sea row.

Duterte gave a glowing description of Xi when asked to react to the latter’s message congratulating him for winning the 2016 presidential race. He groped for Xi’s official designation while relating his elation at having received a congratulatory message from the Chinese leader.

The presidency is Duterte’s first national post after 22 years as mayor of Davao City.

“I was honored, receiving a congratulatory message from a great president, uhm prime minister,” he said in a press conference Tuesday night.

Earlier, Xi greeted Duterte on his victory and expressed hope the Philippines and China would continue to work together to enhance their relationship.

“A friendly, stable and sound China-Philippines relationship is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and the two peoples,” state-run news agency Xinhua quoted the Chinese leader as saying.

According to the report, Xi is hopeful that the Philippines and China “would work together to get bilateral relations back on the track of sound development.”

The Philippines and China are embroiled in a dispute over parts of South China Sea, a busy sea lane through which more than $5 trillion worth of goods pass every year.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the resource-rich area.

China, which claims historical rights over 90 percent of the South China Sea, has built artificial islands, runways, airstrips and other military facilities in disputed areas, alarming its neighbors who are wary of its impact on freedom of navigation.

In 2013, the Philippines challenged the legality of China’s territorial claim before an international arbitral tribunal, calling it “exaggerated” and “excessive.”

China, however, refused to recognize the complaint or the jurisdiction of the arbitral court, insisting it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the disputed areas.

While the outgoing Aquino administration insists that the only way to resolve the dispute is through international arbitration, Duterte has said he is open to holding bilateral talks with China.

In an earlier press conference, Duterte said he might negotiate with the Chinese government if current efforts to resolve the dispute remain stagnant in the first two years of his administration.

“We are allied with western powers. We will continue with the popular notion of the countries affected by the occupation of China (of disputed areas),” Duterte said.

“But after two years, if the negotiation is not moving or there is no wind to force the sail, if it is still stalemate and if after two years, China says do you want to talk bilateral, then I’ll say yes,” he added.

“If we would be able to produce results by the third year, why should I be in a hurry? But what I said is if it remains in still waters or it’s not moving along…”

Last week, Duterte said a railway project aimed at easing the Philippines’ traffic woes  may be undertaken with China. He did not elaborate.

Duterte, however, clarified that he would not set aside the Philippines’ territorial rights in the South China Sea because of the project.

TACLOBAN CITY

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