BEIJING – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in a meeting this week with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, brought up the thorny issue of a 2016 arbitration award favoring his country in a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, senior Philippine officials said Saturday.
At the Thursday meeting in Beijing, Xi simply reiterated Beijing’s position of not recognizing the ruling by the U.N.-backed court in The Hague that invalidated China’s sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea, according to the officials who attended the meeting.
“We brought out our position, and they also brought out theirs. And that was it,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said of the two leaders’ exchanges about the matter at the Great Hall of the People.
“We cannot expect them to change their comment about the arbitral (award) because even from the start, when the arbitration case was filed, they have already said that they don’t honor the ruling. So, that is still the same stand of Xi Jinping,” Lorenzana said.
Hermogenes Esperon, Duterte’s main security adviser who heads the government’s task force on South China Sea issues, said Beijing’s disregard of the award and Manila’s assertion about its existence are both “maximum” positions of the two governments.
“They don’t even recognize our ‘West Philippine Sea.’ But we always tell that to them,” Esperon said in a separate interview. The Philippines calls its claimed portion of the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea.
Esperon said that Duterte also brought up Manila’s concern about the presence of several Chinese vessels near the Philippine-occupied Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelago.
In addition, there was also an “expressed agreement or talks between the two leaders” on the Code of Conduct (for the South China Sea),” he said.
The COC is currently being negotiated by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which the Philippines is a member of.
He said both wanted the negotiations to be fast-tracked to be able to meet the three-year deadline, or until the end of the Philippines’ coordinatorship between China and ASEAN ends in 2021.
“The talks went well. … The president articulated very much the Philippine interest and our position in the South China Sea. It was very good, if not the best,” Eduardo Ano, the interior and local government secretary, separately confirmed.
Despite a decision to temporarily set aside the arbitration award in line with his administration’s friendlier approach toward China, Duterte mentioned for the first time the ruling before Xi when they met in Beijing in May 2017 for the first Belt and Road Forum.
But, according to Duterte, Xi responded at the time with a threat of China going to war.
The Philippine leader had repeatedly vowed he will confront China with the arbitral award at a proper time during his administration, which ends in 2022, especially when Beijing starts to extract mineral and gas deposits in the disputed waters.
“The president is the principal architect of foreign policies. I give my advice. It’s up to him how to play the game. Let’s not pre-empt him because our relations (with China) are not only about the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea. There are many other aspects,” Esperon said.
On Friday evening, Duterte witnessed the exchange of 19 business agreements signed with Chinese firms worth over $12 billion in investments and trade. The Philippine trade ministry expects more than 21,000 jobs to be generated from those.
“Our growing economic exchanges can only strengthen the enduring friendship between the Filipino and Chinese nations,” Duterte told businessmen at the event.
Esperon said that amid the lingering territorial disputes, the two countries’ relations are “only going to get stronger” if such other aspects as trade and economic, cultural and tourism are considered.
China asserts it has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea. After reclaiming disputed reefs there, some of which were already ruled to be part of the Philippines, it fortified them with military installations.
The arbitration court also reprimanded China for driving away fishermen from countries including the Philippines from their traditional fishing areas in the South China Sea, as well as for causing marine environmental damage as a result of its artificial island-building activities.