PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte assured Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that China has committed not to conduct reclamation or expansion activities on disputed territories with the Philippines and ruled out violence as an option for settling the conflict.
“China has put it on record that near the Pag-asa island and the Scarborough…China has committed to us [that they will]not to build anything there. I hope that they would honor that commitment. I really hope and pray,” said Duterte in a news conference upon his arrival in Manila on Tuesday night.
“Yes, [I am holding on to that commitment], because if I commit, as President of a sovereign state, what comes out of my mouth is what it is. Anything less than commitment, you will lose the respect of others and the rest who are giving us assistance,” said Duterte when asked about the details of his discussion with Abe on the freedom of navigation on international waters.
Japan and China are disputing ownership over the uninhabited Senkaku islands.
The Philippines won its case against China in July 2016 when the Hague-based United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) junked the communist state’s nine-dash line claim of the entire South China Sea, and declared that the Spratly Islands, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank were all within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
The July 2016 PCA ruling, in effect,granted the Philippines fishing rights over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).
The President, who has sought to pacify China by not enforcing the PCA ruling, said he was not entertaining the possibility that Beijing would not honor its commitment but added:
“It is not for me to say [what will happen if China does not honor its commitment]. That question [on whether they will fulfill their word]should be answered by them. After all, I am not poaching anything. What I have said is that these [islands]are mine,” said Duterte.
Duterte said the freedom of navigation was a concern not only for the Philippines but for many countries namely Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia which were also claiming sovereignty in islands located within South China Sea but not necessarily within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, which Manila has called the West Philippine Sea.
“Other countries are also claiming islands [in the South China Sea]because each country has an [exclusive]economic zone [under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas]. There are overlapping claims, and we can always resolve it by just talking,” Duterte said.
“I cannot imagine myself being involved in a violent solution or almost a suicide action. There is no space for violence as an option, we should continue to talk,” Duterte said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) composed of the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Brunei and Indonesia has a non-binding Declaration of Conduct (DOC) with China on the South China Sea that was signed in 2002.
The DOC provides that parties should “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”
At the conclusion of the Asean Regional Forum hosted by Manila in August, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano virtually backed Beijing’s position that there should be no legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea. He said that it would be practical to maintain the status quo because Asean and China would have to agree on who would impose the penalties in the event that the signatories violate the provisions of a binding COC.
Duterte was in Japan for a two-day working visit where he and Abe discussed strengthening bilateral relations. It was his second trip to that country since becoming President in 2016 and has since formed a personal bond with Abe who has considered him “family.”
The President came home with $6 billion worth of prospective investments from at least 18 private companies and P9 billion more from the Japanese government that would include an upgrade of the Philippines’ transport system.