Beijing told visiting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that its position on the South China Sea was not up for negotiation, a spokesman for the leader said Friday.
China claims most of the contested sea, including waters close to Philippine shores, and has rejected a UN-backed international tribunal ruling that said its assertion to the sea is without legal basis.
President Duterte is under growing pressure at home to challenge China—after largely setting aside the standoff for years—with tensions high after a Chinese fishing trawler hit and sank a Filipino boat in June in the contested waters.
In a meeting between the Philippine leader and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday evening, Xi reiterated his government’s position of not recognizing the tribunal ruling “as well as not budging from its position,” said Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said.
The pair agreed to work together to “manage” the issue and recognized “the importance of self-restraint and respect for freedom of navigation in—and overflight above—the South China Sea,” he said.
The decision to raise the issue marks a turnaround for Duterte, who had revived once-icy diplomatic ties with Beijing after being elected in 2016 when he set aside the maritime ruling in favor of wooing Chinese aid, trade, and investment.
Renato de Castro, professor of international studies at De La Salle University, said Duterte was expected to bring up the issue on his visit to “go through the motions.”
“At this point… he has nothing to lose because he has only three years to go”, he said.
“So [he] might as well raise it expecting that President Xi Jinping would basically ignore it or reject it. It’s… a classic charade.”
According to a statement from China’s foreign ministry, Xi said the two countries should “put aside disputes, eliminate external interference” over the South China Sea, and “make greater strides in the joint development of offshore oil and gas” in the region.
Parts of the South China Sea are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
China invokes the so-called “nine-dash line” to mark its historic rights to the territory, which is based on a vague map that emerged in the 1940s.
Despite the territorial issues, Manila and Beijing signed a series of agreements over joint cooperation in fields including education, and Duterte hailed the “friendship and the value of our ties” between the two countries.
During their meeting on Thursday, Duterte insisted that the Hague ruling was “final, binding and not subject to appeal,” but Xi merely reiterated his refusal to recognize the arbitral decision, which rejected Beijing’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea and spelled out the country’s marine entitlements, Panelo said.
Duterte was not surprised with Xi’s reaction, he added.
“From the very start, that was their [China] position even prior to the visit. But nevertheless, as he [Duterte] committed himself to the Filipino people and to Mr. Xi himself, he raised that issue,” Panelo told reporters.
The government in 2016 won a case before the United Nations-backed court which invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, but Beijing did not recognize the ruling.
China dismissed it as “nothing more than a piece of waste paper” and accelerated its militarization efforts in the vital waterway.
Duterte has refused to enforce the 2016 ruling because he said the country is no match against China’s military might. He also said Xi warned him of ‘trouble’ if he insists on the matter.
In a TV interview, the director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea said Duterte’s actions were aimed at a local audience.
Panelo also said there is no need for the Philippines to seek international support to enforce the arbitral ruling.
“I think the President is very smart enough, he’s handling the conflict quite effectively. Those who may want to use other methods, I guess they have to run for [the] presidency,” he said.
Both leaders also agreed that a Code of Conduct in the WPS should be finalized during the remaining years of Duterte.
The code seeks to avoid tensions among countries that claim territories in the South China Sea and to resolve maritime disputes peacefully.
In 2002, ASEAN member countries and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties but the claimants–the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan–have yet to craft a binding code more than 16 years later.
Duterte and Xi witnessed the signing of six agreements Thursday night, Panelo said.
• Exchange of Notes on Cooperation Procedure for the Availment and Utilization of Concessional Loan under a Renminbi-denominated Loan Facility (between the Philippine DFA and the China International Development Cooperation Agency);
• Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Higher Education from 2019 to 2024 (between the Philippine CHED and Chinese Ministry of Education);
• Memorandum of Understanding on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (between the Philippine DOST and Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology);
• Cooperative Arrangement on the Implementation of the Intergovernmental Agreement Regarding Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Customs Matters (between the Philippine DOF/BOC and the Chinese General Administration of Customs);
• Implementation Contract on Project of China-Aid Container Inspection Equipment (between the Philippine DOF/BOC and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce); and
• Preferential Buyer’s Credit Loan Agreement of Project Management Consultancy of the Philippine National Railways South Long Haul Project (between the Philippine DOF and the Export-Import Bank of China). The agreement calls for a $219.78-million preferential buyer’s credit facility to fund the PNR South Long Haul Project, which will link Metro Manila to Legazpi, Albay; Legaspi to Matnog in Sorsogon; and Calamba, Laguna to Batangas City. It is a key infrastructure project under Duterte’s Build, Build, Build program.
The Philippines and China will also form groups that will settle agreements on joint oil and gas exploration in specific areas in the West Philippine Sea, according to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.
Both countries can take a “bigger step” in the joint development of offshore oil and gas, Xi said.
The announcement was made in a press release issued after the meeting between Duterte and Xi Jinping, Xinhua said.
The Chinese leader also said that the steering committee created for that purpose should prepare a “substantive program on the matter,” Panelo said.
The Palace has yet to release the names of the government officials who will join the committee.
The Gabriela Women’s Party on Friday called for “utmost transparency” in the deals the Philippines and China signed, noting that their documents have yet to be released to the public.
Gabriela Party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas also called out Panelo’s attempts to calm concerns of a Chinese debt trap.
“The Philippines already fell for China’s debt trap. The lives of millions of Filipinos are already at stake when he signed yet again a series of loans and agreements with China despite President Xi’s rejection on the country’s landmark win in the international arbitral court,” Brosas said in a statement.
Brosas also urged the public “to resist this outright sellout of our land, sovereignty, and dignity and be part of protests at the Chinese Embassy.” With AFP