Duterte said he would also bring up a proposed joint exploration of resources in the West Philippine Sea and press China on the long-delayed binding code of conduct for claimants in the disputed area.
Presidential Photo, file
Experts temper expectations on Duterte-Xi meet
Alexis Romero (Philstar.com) - August 28, 2019 - 9:31am

BEIJING — President Rodrigo Duterte's announcement that he would finally raise the arbitral ruling on the South China Sea during his visit here this week has created much anticipation but Filipinos should not expect that much as dealing with a superpower is not that easy, experts said. 

Duterte, who has been criticized for supposedly not taking a tough stance on the maritime row, will begin his fifth visit here on Wednesday and officials claim he is bent on talking about the 2016 arbitral ruling whether China likes it or not.  

The president previously said he would also bring up a proposed joint exploration of resources in the West Philippine Sea and press China on the long-delayed binding code of conduct for claimants in the disputed area.

RELATED: 'Time has come' for Duterte to raise arbitral ruling with Xi

While some welcome the president's plan to tackle a key issue that had tarnished the ties between Manila and Beijing, some experts think expectations of the visit have to be tempered.

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines-Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the public would naturally tend to have high expectations because they rely on the president to come up with a fair and equitable arrangement. 

"Since 2016, the people have been told to wait for the 'right time' to raise the arbitration, and now the government is saying 'the time has come.' Although it may sound dramatic, I think the people have to be reminded that negotiating with China will be far more difficult to anticipate," Batongbacal told The STAR in an email interview. 

RELATED: Locsin accepts China's 'superior' terms of reference for oil exploration

Batongbacal said his expectations of the discussions about the proposed joint exploration in the South China Sea are "relatively low."

According to him, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by Manila and Beijing last year and the terms of reference (TOR) for petroleum exploration and development "do not directly address the principal legal challenges to joint development with the Philippines, particularly the constitutional obstacles." 

"Both agreements seek to pass on the tough work on to the prospective contractors of the identified joint development area. At best we might see a signing of the TOR and creation of the new committee," Batongbacal said.  

He also said the Philippines has lost both the maximum leverage value and best opportunity for wielding the ruling back in 2016, when the country could have mobilized the support of the international community and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The ruling voided China's maritime claim in the South China Sea and upheld the Philippines' rights over its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

RELATED: Duterte expected to push for crafting of South China Sea code 'delayed' by China

'Very inappropriate' to bring up ruling during visit

Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, said Duterte is raising the issue of arbitral ruling to address domestic concerns as part of a populist agenda but discussing it before Chinese President Xi Jinping would be "very inappropriate."

"While he can mention the ruling during his visit to China, it is very inappropriate for him to discuss this matter with President Xi as this will embarrass the host.  He can cite the ruling in the context of pursuing cooperation in the South China Sea, particularly on the implementation of MOU of joint development of natural gas and oil," he said.

"President Duterte is visiting China not to weaken but to strengthen pragmatic cooperation between the Philippines and China," he added. 

Banlaoi said it is "counterproductive" to raise the expectations of Filipinos on the visit, particularly on the proposed joint development and the code of conduct.  "The Philippines is dealing with a major power. Small power like the Philippines cannot get all that it wants from the major power," he added.  

He said Xi fully understands where Duterte is coming from when it comes to the issue of joint development in the South China Sea. He believes that China would not insist a deal that would disadvantage the Philippines after learning difficult lessons from the Joint Maritime Seismic Understanding, a 2005 deal challenged before the court. 

"For the Philippines, joint development is largely motivated by economic considerations. For China, joint development aims to accomplish its geopolitical objectives in the South China Sea. China aims to earn political points in pursuing joint development with the Philippines in the South China Sea," Banlaoi said. 

Banlaoi, nevertheless is optimistic that Duterte's visit to China would not in any way sell out any piece of Philippine territory in the South China Sea.

Duterte's much anticipated bilateral meeting with Xi will be held on Thursday. It will be followed by the signing of various cooperation agreements on education, science and technology, and social development and a dinner banquet.

On Friday, the President will also have a bilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Li Kequang before leaving for Guanzhou to watch the opening ceremony of the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

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