PH not abandoning court ruling on South China Sea, says envoy
(Updated, 4:18 p.m.) BEIJING—The Philippine government will not abandon the United Nations-backed arbitral ruling that rejected China’s expansive claims in South China Sea amid President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts to mend the strained relations with China, a Philippine diplomat said Saturday.
“What we have won legally, we will not abandon nor give up,” Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana told reporters here.
Duterte has said he would use a “soft landing” approach in dealing with the Philippines’ maritime dispute with China and has engaged into bilateral talks instead of pressing the issue on China.
Sta. Romana said the Duterte government has decided to put the issue on a “separate track” so as not to derail the Philippines’ improving relations with China.
“Because if you keep on forcing the issue, it will just lead to possible conflict and confrontation,” he said.
“The problem is, if you put the disputes in the front and center of bilateral relations, that you have to resolve this first before you can have trade, before you can have cultural links and so on, the results is the relations will be frozen,” he added.
Sta. Romana said the government is employing a different strategy this time, saying that it wants to prevent a row with China from escalating.
“So the basic approach of the Duterte administration has been to put it on separate tracks. Take the dispute from the front and center, put it on a separate track and there you can discuss it, you deal with it one by one–the issue of the South China Sea, the issue of ownership, sovereignity issue, the issue if the tribunal award and the issue of the nine-dash line,” he said.
“In doing that, you open another track for areas where there are no disputes and that is the strategy we are following—promoting economics, trade, commerce, educational exchange, cultural exchange, promoting sports,” he added.
But the envoy clarified that putting the issue on a separate track doesn’t mean the government was giving up on the country’s claims in the disputed sea.
“If you put the dispute on the center (of the discussion), it will poison the atmosphere,” he said.
He said the Philippines was now on a “new chapter our bilateral relations” with China under the Duterte administration.
He said the improved relations could be tainted if the sea dispute won’t be “handled properly.”
“It could if it’s not handled properly like what we have experienced in the past couple of years,” he said.
During the administration of former president Benigno Aquino III, the government was aggressive in pushing for the country’s rights over the South China Sea.
He said the government was considering national interest in dealing with the issue on the disputed sea and “part of our national interest is to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Sta. Romana cited the gains of the government’s diplomatic approach with China in dealing with the maritime dispute.
Compared to previous years where Filipino fishermen have been blocked and harassed in the rich fishing ground near the disputed shoals, he said “Filipino fishermen can now fish in the Scarborough Shoal.”
“So that already is a sign of an early harvest,” he said.
He said Philippine products such as tropical fruits were already seen in Chinese markets, which he said was a product of warmer ties between the two countries.
Interest on the South China Sea issue is high as Duterte is set to arrive here on Saturday night to attend the “One Belt, One Road” forum.
He is scheduled to have a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday. IDL
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