Rody: No hardline stance vs China

Christina Mendez - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - President Duterte yesterday said he would not “taunt or flaunt” a favorable ruling on a highly sensitive legal challenge against Beijing over a South China Sea dispute.

But it was unclear whether Duterte intended to telegraph his soft diplomatic punches, with his comments made during his first Cabinet meeting yesterday that was broadcast live on national television before being cut abruptly during the discussions on China.

In that meeting, Duterte said a favorable ruling from the UN tribunal is a “moral victory” for the Philippines. But he also cautioned Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. against adopting a hardline stance against China over the matter.

Duterte said the UN tribunal ruling would be a “cliffhanger.”

Duterte said he is against issuing strong statements against China even if the ruling goes in favor of the Philippines.

Duterte urged the agencies concerned to study all options the Philippines would take should it get a favorable ruling.

“We will study progressively on how we would utilize it. Of course, it would be a moral victory but we can’t put the country in an awkward position,” he added. 

As much as possible, Duterte said he does not want to instigate violence if there’s opportunity to talk peace. 

“As for me, I do not want it (violence). God knows, I really do not want any fighting with anybody. If we can have peace by just talking, I will be really very happy,” he said.

Yasay said some foreign governments had been urging the Philippines to make stronger statements against China.

“I am averse to that idea and I told them in no unmistakable terms,” Yasay said.

Yasay did not name the governments that had been pushing for stronger statements, but described them as “those who are concerned about ensuring freedom of navigation.”

The United States has been one of the most vocal nations calling for China to ensure “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.

Yasay then started discussing what the Philippines should do if China “will dig in and put us to the test.”

He said a favorable ruling “has not kicked into play the mutual defense agreement.”

“But the bottom line question is what will happen if the decision is in our favor, meaning that the arbitral tribunal will make a declaration about the legality of the nine-dash-line, and will say that this is part of our economic shoal, including Scarborough Shoal. What if, in the face of these circumstances, China will dig in and put us to a test? They will dislodge fisherman again from fishing in Scarborough Shoal,” he said.

Yasay discussed the issue before the Cabinet members but then the live telecast was abruptly stopped.

Almost immediately afterwards the broadcast, which was distributed by PTV 4 and carried live on commercial networks as well as Internet portals for about 40 minutes, was also cut.

The Cabinet meeting took place a few hours after Duterte was sworn in as president.

Duterte took over from Benigno Aquino III who put the Philippines’ long-running dispute with China at the top of his foreign policy agenda, publicly drawing comparisons between Beijing’s expansionist efforts in the sea and Nazi Germany’s takeover of parts of Europe.

Aquino also launched the legal action with the UN-backed tribunal in The Hague, arguing that China’s claims to most of the strategically vital and resource-rich sea were in violation of international law.

China’s claims extend close to the Philippines’ coast, as well as those of other Southeast Asian countries.

The tribunal is set to issue a verdict on July 12.

Infuriated by Aquino’s strategy, China has vowed to ignore the tribunal’s ruling and repeatedly expressed hopes of better ties with the Philippines under Duterte.

China’s foreign ministry said Beijing will reject the ruling by the international tribunal.

Beijing has consistently rejected the tribunal’s right to hear the case and has taken no part in the proceedings, mounting a diplomatic and propaganda drive to try to undermine its authority.

“With regard to territorial issues and maritime delimitation disputes, China does not accept any means of third party dispute settlement or any solution imposed on China,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement on its website.

Hong said the tribunal was established on the basis of “illegal conduct and claims of the Philippines” and “has no jurisdiction over the relevant matters.”

At a regular briefing yesterday, Hong added that by bringing the case to the Arbitration Court, the Philippines “disregards China’s choice to resolving disputes in ways of its own choosing.”

The Philippines lodged the suit against China in early 2013, saying that after 17 years of negotiations it had exhausted all political and diplomatic avenues to settle the dispute.

Spanning more than three years, two hearings and nearly 4,000 pages of evidence, the arbitration case in The Hague is extremely complex.

The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) informed the parties that the Tribunal will issue its “Award” in the arbitration initiated by the Philippines against China under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The PCA said the award will first be issued via e-mail to the parties.

Originally signed versions of the ruling will be received by the parties. Hard copies of the Award will also be sent to the embassies of the governments that were granted observer status during the hearings. There will be no in-person meeting or ceremony for the rendering of the court decision. – Aurea Calica, Pia Lee-Brago

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