MANILA/DAVAO, PHILIPPINES – Rodrigo Duterte said Monday that if he becomes Philippine president he would call for multilateral talks to resolve disputes over the South China Sea, which should include the United States and Japan as well as rival claimants.
Duterte also said China should respect the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the waters off its coast and, instead of facing off, the two countries could work together in exploiting offshore oil and gas as joint-venture partners.
“If we want joint ventures, fine. I believe in sharing,” he told reporters in the southern city of Davao.
He was speaking while an unofficial vote count rolled in on the presidential election that showed him with a commanding lead over his rivals.
His comments came as more than 200 Filipinos voted on a Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea, with the mayor saying the elections proved Manila has sovereignty in the far-flung off-shore area.
Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon says the elections on Thitu Island in the Spratlys chain may have been the most peaceful in the country because of its zero-crime record. Aside from Bito-onon, two other candidates are contesting the mayoralty post.
“This is an exercise of ownership of this regime of islands,” Bito-onon said by cellphone from the island Filipinos call Pag-asa, Tagalog for hope. “This is the most peaceful election. All of us are friends and the place is very laid back.”
At night, villagers looking offshore can see red, green and white lights blinking from three lighthouses on an island China recently built on Subi Reef, a reminder of Beijing’s growing influence in the region, Bito-onon said.
Meldy Pernia, who has lived on and off on the island since 2012 with her children and husband, said she was proud that even their mere presence helped protect the country’s territory.
“We’re representatives of the Philippines,” Pernia said by telephone. “Our presence here prevents other countries from claiming what is ours.”