Cayetano plays down China threat
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Monday sought to play down President Duterte’s claim that Chinese President Xi Jinping had told him that China would go to war with the Philippines if Manila insisted on drilling for oil in the West Philippine Sea, saying the two were not threatening each other but talking about preventing conflict.
Speaking to reporters before leaving for Russia with Mr. Duterte, Cayetano said talks last week between the two leaders in Beijing were frank and friendly, with no threats or bullying.
He said there was no need for the government to file a diplomatic protest against China or take Beijing to the United Nations, as suggested by some senators and Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
He said he planned to brief the senators and Carpio on the discussion between Mr. Duterte and Xi after he returned from Moscow.
A self-styled socialist, Mr. Duterte left with a large delegation on Monday for a five-day visit to Russia, a socialist-turned-capitalist country.
The outspoken Mr. Duterte said during a televised speech at a Philippine Coast Guard event in Davao City on Friday that Xi had warned him that there would be war if he tried to explore for oil in the West Philippine Sea, waters within Manila’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
Mr. Duterte did not name a drill site, but it was understood that he was referring to Recto Bank, a reef internationally known as Reed Bank, 153 km off Palawan, that the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last year ruled was within the Philippine EEZ and could be explored by Manila for resources.
Mr. Duterte said he discussed the ruling with Xi when they met in Beijing on Monday, and got a firm but friendly warning.
“We intend to drill oil there. If it’s yours, well, that’s your view. But my view is, I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the earth, because it is ours,” Mr. Duterte said, recalling his conversation with Xi.
“His response to me was, ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you. We want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war,” Mr. Duterte said.
“Please do not do that because that is ours,” he further quoted Xi as saying.
He said he replied, “But I have the arbitral [award].”
Xi, he said, countered: “Yes, but ours is historical and yours is legal of recent memory. We had that since the Ming dynasty.”
Mr. Duterte said he replied that “that’s too far away” and it was “almost alien to us to hear those words because we were never under Chinese jurisdiction.”
“Well, if you force the issue, we’ll be forced to tell you the truth,” Xi said, according to Mr. Duterte.
And when he asked Xi what that was, he said the Chinese leader said: “We will go to war. We will fight you.”
How to avoid conflict
Cayetano said he was present during the meeting, but he did not disclose details from the conversation between the two leaders.
He said there was no bullying and the context of frank talks “was on how to avoid conflict” and “how to increase trust and mutual respect.”
“There was no language or even tone that would lead any of the two presidents to believe that there was disrespect for them or their country,” he said.
Cayetano said Mr. Duterte apparently talked about his meeting with Xi just to respond to a barrage of criticisms that he had been soft on China and had refused to raise the Philippines’ victory in the arbitral court, which invalidated China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea.
But Cayetano neither confirmed nor denied whether the word “war” was used during the conversation between Mr. Duterte and Xi.
“I cannot tell you the exact words but the tenor of the conversation was very friendly, refreshing and, in fact, both sides went out of the meeting satisfied and [optimistic] that the dialogue will produce results,” he said.
Cayetano said that after his return from Russia next week, he would explain the context of the two leaders’ exchange to the senators and Carpio.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan on Sunday urged the government to file a diplomatic protest against China if indeed Beijing threatened Manila with war.
Senators Antonio Trillanes and Richard Gordon doubted that Xi made the threat, but if he really did, they said, then the Philippines should take the matter to the UN General Assembly.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson agreed with Carpio, who suggested that the Philippines bring China’s threat of war to the UN General Assembly by sponsoring a resolution condemning the threat and demanding that China comply with the arbitral tribunal’s ruling.
China has no veto in the UN General Assembly, Carpio said.
The Philippines could also claim damages from China for the delay in its exploration for resources in the West Philippine Sea caused by China’s threat, he said.
On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the government should not take China’s threat lightly.
“We should stand up to China. We should not allow our country to be bullied and threatened,” he said.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines must not only take China to the United Nations but also pursue joint patrols with the United States and other allies in the West Philippine Sea.
Mr. Duterte has disallowed joint patrols in the disputed waters to avoid angering China and reduce tensions in the region.
Also on Monday, Malacañang assured the public that “[t]he first and last priority of President Duterte is the national interest and the well-being of the Filipino.”
“The Philippines and China are committed to peaceful resolutions to socioeconomic and political challenges, and the recently concluded meet on the bilateral consultation mechanism is one platform for confidence-building measures, to address issues pertaining to the South China Sea,” presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a statement.
“We are very clear that we are not giving up our claim of sovereignty and sovereign rights over certain islands in the South China Sea. At the same time, these matters are pursued in the context of maintaining peace and prosperity in the region,” Abella added.—WITH REPORTS FROM CHRISTINE O. AVENDAÑO AND AP
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