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Duterte: Arbitral ruling not an issue for Asean

/ 01:58 AM April 28, 2017

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President Duterte on Thursday said it was pointless discussing at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit the Philippines’ victory over China in the South China Sea dispute, and no one dared pressure Beijing anyway.

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Mr. Duterte told reporters that the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favor of the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute was an issue between Manila and Beijing only and it was not worth discussing with other Asean member states during the summit in Manila this week.

“I will skip the arbitral ruling. It is not an issue here in the Asean,” Mr. Duterte said.

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Handed down on July 12 last year, the arbitral ruling invalidated China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea and said Beijing violated Manila’s sovereign right to fish and explore resources in the West Philippine Sea, waters in the South China Sea within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.

READ: Philippines wins arbitration case vs. China over South China Sea

Mr. Duterte, however, said the Philippines, the Asean chair this year, could not alone force China to abide by the ruling.

“China said [it was] completely ignoring the [ruling], so what more can you ask of it? Make noise? For what?” he said.

‘Misunderstanding’

On reports that China’s Navy harassed Filipino fishermen at Union Banks, in the Spratly archipelago, Mr. Duterte said there had been a “misunderstanding.”

READ: China’s Navy harassed PH fishers, says lawmakers

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“We have talked about it. I said I [hoped it would] not happen again,” he said.

The ruling is relevant to the disputes between China and three other Asean members—Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam—over territory in the South China Sea.

But Mr. Duterte, a self-styled socialist who came to office in June last year, has deferred assertion of the country’s legal victory to repair relations with China that had been frayed by the Philippine challenge in the Hague court.

He visited Beijing in October last year and returned home with millions of dollars in Chinese pledges of projects and investment in the Philippines.

READ: Duterte comes home from ‘productive’ China trip

A study commissioned by the Philippine government in 1975 established that the Kalayaan group belongs to the Philippines and not to China, Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told a forum sponsored by the military’s northern command in Tarlac City on Wednesday.

But the study was never published, Batongbacal said.

“It was a secret study. It was basically commissioned by the government through then Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza. It was conducted by UP professors who were then with what is now the Asian Center,” he said.

“If it was published at that time, we [won’t be facing] this ‘historic rights’ argument of China [today,” he said.

An offshoot of the study was Presidential Decree No. 1596, which declared the Kalayaan group part of the Philippine territory, Batongbacal said.

It was issued by dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1978, he added.

On Wednesday, Marciano Paynor Jr., director general of the Asean 2017 National Organizing Council, said that as chair of this year’s summit, the Philippines should be neutral in the South China Sea disputes.

A draft of the customary joint statement  to be issued by the Asean leaders at the end of their summit on Saturday indicates that they will express serious concern over territorial disputes in the South China Sea but will not directly refer to China or mention the arbitral decision.

China has steadfastly opposed the raising in international forums of its territorial disputes with Asean nations and Taiwan in the South China Sea.

READ: Asean may go soft on China on sea row

When they played host to the Asean summit, Cambodia and Laos, both economically dependent on China, allowed mention of the disputes in the postsummit statement, but not reference to China by name.

Code of conduct

As Asean chair, however, the Philippines has a “golden opportunity” to push for the completion a framework for a code of conduct for the South China Sea claimants, according to UP professor Chester Cabalza.

Mr. Duterte, Cabalza said on Thursday, should maximize his “influence in the region and good relations with China” for the conclusion of the code, which should recognize freedom of navigation and overflight.

Mr. Duterte said the Manila summit would discuss the proposed code, the framework for which the Philippines hopes will be completed this year.—WITH REPORTS FROM GABRIEL CARDINOZA, AND NIKKO DIZON 

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