President Duterte shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang prior to bilateral talks in Beijing yesterday.
Rody, Xi in stalemate on SCS arbitral ruling
Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - August 31, 2019 - 12:00am

BEIJING – There will be no more intrusions by Chinese warships into Philippine territorial waters or sinking of Philippine fishing boats by Chinese vessels.

But President Duterte and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are in a “stalemate” over the 2016 arbitral court ruling favoring Manila’s position over Beijing’s in the South China Sea issue, according to presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo.

At the meeting, Duterte made good his word to raise with Xi the 2016 arbitral court ruling invalidating Beijing’s expansive claim in the West Philippine Sea and reaffirming the Philippines’ maritime entitlements. Xi reiterated his position against recognizing the ruling.

But Panelo said Duterte and Xi agreed to exercise self-restraint to prevent untoward incidents.

“What they have agreed upon is that both countries will refrain or avoid performing aggressive, provocative acts that will trigger incidents that have been done before,” Panelo said at a press briefing yesterday.

“And both of them have agreed that they should observe international law and UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) for the regional peace and security,” Panelo said.

“(They agreed that) they should handle it correctly. In other words...they both agree that both countries should exercise self-restraint and to refrain from performing aggressive or provocative acts that may impair the ties,” he added.

Asked what actions could be considered aggressive, Panelo said they should include passing through the Philippines’ territorial waters without notifying Filipino authorities and harassment of fishermen.

“They said we will no longer perform aggressive acts. That’s why it’s self-restraint,” the presidential spokesman said.

On what an aggressive act could possibly entail, Panelo replied: “Then let’s see how either of the countries will react to that. But file a diplomatic protest, then you discuss again why there is a repeat.”

“We have a stalemate there (in the West Philippine Sea issue). There is an impasse there because we did not agree on that portion,” Panelo said.

“Well, he wanted to settle the issue. But the issue is still unresolved, so they agreed that they will maintain the dialogue peacefully,” he added.

He said the two leaders expressed belief that their friendship is not anchored on their views on the maritime row but on their “centuries old friendship” and the “benefits” to be gained from cooperation.

“Both President Duterte and President Xi agreed that while their variant positions will have to remain, their differences however need not derail nor diminish the amity between the two countries,” Panelo said.

“They shared the view that the contentious issue is not the sum total of the Philippine-Chinese bilateral relationship,” he pointed out. 

“Both leaders agreed to work together, on the basis of mutual trust and good faith, to manage the South China Sea issue, and to continue to dialogue peacefully in resolving the conflict,” Panelo maintained.

Despite China’s hardline stance on the arbitral ruling, Duterte said the bilateral meeting “went very well.”

“President Xi reiterated his government’s position of not recognizing the arbitral ruling as well as not budging from its position,” Panelo said.

He said Duterte had expected Xi’s rejection because it has been China’s position on the issue all along.

“But nevertheless as he committed himself to the Filipino people and to Mr. Xi himself, he raised that issue,” the presidential spokesman said.

He claimed there is no need to seek international support for the issue which, he stressed, is best settled through bilateral negotiations.

Panelo said Duterte raised the arbitral ruling in a “friendly, assertive, unequivocal manner.”

Panelo said Duterte had also raised the prospect of joint exploration of resources in the West Philippine Sea, an undertaking that officials said could ensure Manila’s energy security.

“President Xi for his part said that the steering committee created for that purpose should prepare a substantive program on the matter,” Panelo said.

Code of Conduct

During their bilateral meeting, Duterte also talked about the need to finalize the long-delayed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, saying it would contribute to the resolution of numerous conflicts in the region.

“Chinese President Xi agreed with President Duterte that there is a need for the formulation of the Code of Conduct and it should be crafted within the last remaining years of (President Duterte),” Panelo said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have vowed to come up with a binding code of conduct in 2002.

The Philippine leader also mentioned the need for finalizing a Code of Conduct during his bilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang yesterday.

Duterte said the completion of the Code of Conduct is the “least concern” of the United States, which has been calling out China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

“I’ve been the recipient of so many requests regarding the progress of the Code of Conduct that China is preparing for at least hearing the side of what would happen during the operation of the... of the Code of Conduct,” the President said.

“Most of them are Asian countries. The biggest urgency, really comes from the Western world and I would like to tell you now, in front of media and all, that the passage of the Code of Conduct by China and everyone is the least concern of America,” he added.

Last June, Duterte said the United States should stay out of the South China Sea talks because it might deteriorate into a “shouting match” between Washington and Beijing.

Also yesterday, Philippine Ambassador Jose Santiago Sta. Romana told a press briefing that Duterte is “moving with a sense of urgency” in pushing for a joint development, noting that the Malampaya gas field in Palawan is running dry. 

“There is a hope that we move forward and hopefully because it’s very important for the Philippines, the basic issue here if you look at the big picture, is really one of energy security,” Sta. Romana said.

“Malampaya is running dry. And it’s going to affect our power supply. So that’s why the President is moving with a sense of urgency to move the process forward, especially in his last three years,” he added.

The Philippines and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on cooperation in oil and gas development last November. The document serves as the framework for the proposed joint development of resources in the West Philippine Sea. 

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. previously said the Philippines has accepted China’s version of the terms of reference for the MOU. The two countries are set to discuss details as well as the composition of the steering committee and working group that will talk about ways to operationalize the MOU.

“We want to achieve cooperation in joint exploration in areas in the West Philippine Sea, South China Sea, both disputed and undisputed,” Sta. Romana said.

“I think the plan is to get the framework ready so that the steering committee can start the ball rolling, as well as the work groups and they can start that the service contracts which have been affected by the moratorium can also proceed. You know they’ve been put on hold,” he added.

The moratorium, declared by former president Benigno Aquino III in 2014 and 2015, covered service contracts 72 in Recto Bank and 75 in northwest Palawan. Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi has said his agency is working on lifting the moratorium on exploration and drilling works.

“So there’s a lot to do. The problem is we’ll take it one step at a time. And it’s difficult to outline all the answers to all the questions. Some of the questions may have to be resolved through negotiations, through the companies themselves. And hopefully the end of this is like a commercial contract. That is what we look forward to,” Sta. Romana said.

He admitted that the implementation of the proposed joint development faces constraints, including requirements of the Philippine Constitution and UNCLOS.

“But if you look at the MOU, there is a statement there that on the one hand, we follow the spirit of the UN (United Nations) Charter, UNCLOS, international law; on the other hand, both sides will proceed without giving up their positions, their legal positions on certain issues,” Sta. Romana said.

Meanwhile, the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan assailed China’s continued refusal to recognize the arbitral ruling.

“All the more we must, as a people, raise our strongest objection to China’s incursions in our EEZ and its flagrant disregard for intentional law,” said Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes. 

He called China’s action “an insult to the Filipino people and the international community.” Rhodina Villanueva, Raymund Catindig

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