TOKYO — The Philippines will not surrender its territorial claims in the South China Sea despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to Beijing, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano said Wednesday.
Speaking at the Japan National Press Club, Cayetano said Manila’s approach to the territorial dispute may have changed, but its position has not. “The goal has not changed, which is to protect and not give up a single square inch of Philippine territory,” Cayetano said, calling the South China Sea the “West Philippine Sea.”
Last year, the Philippines won an arbitration ruling in a case initiated by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino. The U.N. backed tribunal dismissed Beijing’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Duterte, however, set the victory aside in exchange for economic deals with China said to be worth billions of dollars.
His pro-China tilt has worried regional partners such as Vietnam and Japan who have their own territorial disputes with China. Cayetano said he met with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday night and had a productive meeting.
He said the dispute in the South China Sea is more complicated than the one in the East China Sea because the former involves overlapping claims by Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The East China Sea tiff is between Japan and China alone.
As this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Cayetano said the priority for the Philippines is to foster peace and stability in the region. “We are setting an environment for peaceful settlement of the dispute and getting all parties back to the negotiating table,” he said.
Cayateno’s remarks come after the U.S. Department of Defense released a report overnight detailing China’s expanding global military footprint.
In an annual report to the U.S. Congress titled, “Military and Security Developments Involving People’s Republic of China 2017,” the Pentagon said the landing of civilian aircraft at airfields on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs, as well as landing a military transport aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef, were among “important milestones” last year in the South China Sea, where Beijing has built seven artificial islands to cement its territorial claims.