Duterte can create conditions conducive to resolving disputes
In his first state of the nation address delivered on Monday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he will utilize the ruling in the country’s international arbitration case to peacefully resolve the country’s territorial disputes. This is widely seen as his attempt to maintain a low key approach to the maritime disputes with China.
Peaceful resolution to the South China Sea disputes has been and is China’s consistent stance. When elaborating China’s position on the South China Sea arbitration last week, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would like to work in unison with the Philippines if the new Philippine government is willing to resume dialogue and consultation, manage disputes and improve bilateral relations together with China.
On July 12, the arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in the case it had filed against China. The case, unilaterally brought by former Philippine president Benigno Aquino III, has plunged ties between China and the Philippines to a historic low.
Since his inauguration, Duterte has showed pragmatism and willingness to engage in bilateral negotiations with China. Soon after the arbitration ruling was announced, he said he intended to send former Philippine president Fidel Ramos to China to start negotiations on the South China Sea disputes.
This is the right approach to resolve the maritime disputes. If the Philippines sticks to this approach, China will respond positively, and thus, the tensions in the South China Sea will be dramatically eased, which, in turn, will cater to the interests of peace and stability in the region.
It still needs to be pointed out that the latest remarks from Duterte show the Philippine leader still harbors some illusions that the arbitration might be used as a bargaining chip when bilateral talks with China begin.
But even before the ruling was delivered, China made it clear the country would not negotiate with the Philippines on the basis of any ruling in the arbitration case, regardless of whether it was in favor of the Philippines or not.
The Philippines should understand the ruling, which has cost the country tens of millions of US dollars, is nothing but a worthless piece of paper.
Any suggestion that China should accept the arbitration ruling first then negotiate will run into a stonewall because it is in direct contradiction to China’s stance of neither participating in, nor accepting the arbitration, and neither recognizing, nor honoring the ruling.
Hence, if Manila truly wants to improve ties with Beijing, the Duterte administration needs to cast aside any illusions it may have over leveraging the arbitration ruling against China and show both sincerity and consistency in starting direct talks with China, which is the only viable way to resolve the disputes between them.
The Philippine leader also needs to understand his penchant for changing his tone on the South China Sea issue does a disservice to his efforts to improve ties with China.
True, Duterte backpedaled from his hardline rhetoric on China even before his inauguration as Philippine president, and after the ruling was announced, he went further to back direct talks with China. But he was also the one who said he had no plans to negotiate with China over the maritime disputes when meeting a US congressional delegation on July 20 in Manila.
The Philippine leader may use caprice as a tactic to test China’s bottom line, but as a politician known for his pragmatism, he should let pragmatism prevail and continue to create the right conditions for resolving the South China Sea disputes with China in a peaceful way.
The author is deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily Asia Pacific. [email protected]
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