Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will visit China within the year. While no details are yet known on when this will push through, he said he will insist on the fishing rights of the Philippines in the disputed West Philippine Sea.
Filipino fishermen and Chinese Coast Guard are still playing cat and mouse despite the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that such action by China is illegal.
Part of the decision of The Netherlands-based Arbitral Tribunal is the fact that Scarborough Shoal along with Gaven Reef, McKennan Reef, Johnson Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Fiery Cross Reef are rocks that generate no entitlements to an exclusive economic zone. This means that anybody can go to those areas and exercise their fishing rights without fear of being chased after by Chinese military ships.
“One of the things that I would demand if I go to mainland China is give us back our fishing rights…so our fellow Filipinos can make a living,” said Duterte in a speech during the inauguration of a power plant in Mindanao.
Some sectors have expressed their apprehension that the Arbitral Tribunal might be neglected as Duterte appears to be cozying up to China.
No more fist fight challenge and jet ski ride
During Duterte’s presidential election campaign, while he said the Philippines cannot afford to go to war with China, it did not stop him from promising that he will reclaim Spratlys Island from China by sheer bravado.
“I will ask the Navy to bring me to the nearest point in South China Sea that is tolerable to them and I will ride a jet ski. I will carry a flag and when I reach Spratlys, I will erect the Philippine flag. I will tell them (Chinese), suntukan o barilan [fistfight or firefight],” said Duterte.
Now, in his more subdued pronouncement, Duterte assured that the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision will not be ignored.
He said the Philippines has to make a stand but conflicts should be resolved by sitting down and talking.
“This piece of paper that we have our award, we do not go out of the four corners of this paper. We cannot go to war. Let’s talk first. Wag tayo magtapang tapangan [We should not be too aggressive],” Duterte said.
The President is confident that China will talk to him.
“It is not territorial. If territorial, we could have killed each other a long time ago. It’s the sovereign entitlement,” he said.
The tough-talking leader appears calculated when talking about China.
He said the Philippines should maintain goodwill with China for a stronger partnership noting that the power plant he inaugurated was partly funded by China.
“Let’s just do business. See, they helped build a power plant. Just imagine if we can get them to help in the years to come,” Duterte said.
According to an analyst, Duterte’s first official foreign visit to China will send a positive signal to the world that the Philippines is ready to repair its injured relationship with China after the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling.
“I think that would send a very strong signal (on the Philippines’ commitment to establish good foreign relations) but it does not necessarily mean that we are giving up our rights. If properly handled, it could show that we are firm and demonstrate statesmanship by carrying out this kind of gesture,” University of the Philippines Maritime Law Professor Jay Batongbacal said during a press conference following the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling.
A senior associate justice of the Philippine Supreme Court agrees with Duterte’s approach in dealing with China.
“This dispute should be resolved peacefully,” said Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, one of the staunch supporters of the country’s case against China.
He was part of the team that defended the Philippines’ case in The Netherlands.
Like the Philippines, China was among the countries that ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Carpio said.
“China agreed to that. That’s why we have used UNCLOS as our vehicle to resolve the dispute because when you ratify UNCLOS, you agreed to be bound by the dispute settlement mechanism…I take that’s what the President meant when he said that [the Philippines] will not go to war…We will not start a war we know we cannot win. Nobody wants war,” he said.
The senior justice said the Philippines has to be creative with its actions.
“We have to push the envelope, we have to negotiate, we have to be creative about this,” said Carpio but admitted that it will take time before the conflict is resolved even with the Arbitral Tribunal ruling.