Ties are at turning point: China to PHL delegation

Posted on September 15, 2016

AMID a perceived shift in Philippines-US relations, China on Tuesday said it is marking a turning point in its relations with the Philippines.

Meanwhile, on the heels of Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s recent pronouncements critical of the United States and the United Nations, his Defense secretary assured a congressional hearing on Tuesday that the Philippines “will maintain the status quo” with regard to the West Philippine Sea -- the troubled waters in the Philippines’ dispute with China that are also significant to the Philippines’ security ties with the United States.

These ties are now seen to be tested by Mr. Duterte’s perceived antagonism toward the world power and longtime ally of his country.

On Tuesday, China’s top diplomat told a visiting Philippine delegation in Beijing that relations between China and the Philippines are at a turning point, adding that China hopes the Philippines can handle disputes “appropriately” and get relations back on track.

The remarks by Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin come as two countries at odds over sovereignty in the South China Sea try to sound each other out, and set parameters for dialogue on an issue in which both have vowed not to give way.

The mid-level visit was the latest part of some carefully calibrated engagement after a July ruling by an arbitration panel in The Hague that overwhelmingly favored the Philippines in its dispute with China over the South China Sea, invalidating China’s claim to most of the waters.

China has declined to recognize the ruling while Mr. Duterte has repeatedly said he wants peace with China, but will not make concessions on any part of the tribunal’s conclusion.

Mr. Liu said bilateral relations had “sunk to a low edge for reasons everyone knows.” China’s Foreign Ministry issued the same statement late on Tuesday.

“At present, China-Philippine relations are at a new turning point,” it quoted Mr. Liu as saying, adding that China hoped the Philippines “can meet China halfway, appropriately handle disputes and push relations back onto the track of dialogue, consultation and friendly cooperation.”

China’s bid to improve relations with the Philippines comes amid uncertainty, and acrimony, over the normally tight relations between the Philippines and its main ally, the United States, as Mr. Duterte shows little sign of dialing down rhetoric fiercely critical of Washington.

That tension, following US and UN concern about a bloody Philippine campaign against drugs, has created some speculation that Mr. Duterte’s resentment about what he sees as colonial-era American interference, plus the prospect of luring big-ticket Chinese investment, could nudge Manila closer to Beijing.

Mr. Duterte has, however, insisted he wants solid ties with both powers, and subservience to no country.

US President Barack H. Obama canceled a meeting with Mr. Duterte at an Asian leaders’ summit in Laos last week after a televised outburst by the Philippine leader.

Though that has caused jitters in Washington, Mr. Duterte’s softer tone towards China was not a cause for concern, according to some US officials.

In the latest of his series of meetings with the Philippine armed forces on Tuesday, Mr. Duterte hinted that he had met with China and Russia regarding the purchase of military equipment.

Speaking in Laos, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes suggested Philippine engagement with China suited the United States and would be seen as “a constructive development” if it resulted in peaceful problem-solving and followed international law.

China’s influential Global Times tabloid noted last week that despite the acrimony between Messrs. Obama and Duterte, China should “not hold too many illusions” about US-Philippine relations.

Referring to Mr. Duterte, the newspaper said that long term, it “will not necessarily be easy to deal with the Philippines under his rule.”

The 16-member Philippine delegation in China is comprised mostly of retired diplomats and is led by Rafael M. Alunan III, a trusted associate of former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos.

Mr. Duterte has picked Mr. Ramos as his point man for patching up ties with China, which were tested again last week when the Philippines published images of what it said were new Chinese vessels at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Mr. Duterte’s defense secretary, meanwhile, testified at a budget presentation at the House of Representatives that “we [the Philippines] will maintain the status quo” in the disputed waters -- regarding which Manila and Washington have always observed a mutually understood alliance, especially before Mr. Duterte became president.

The status quo, said Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana, is “so that there would be no miscalculations, because we don’t have any assets to confront the other claimants in the area.”

Mr. Lorenzana also spoke about Mr. Duterte’s recent remarks that he wanted US forces out of Mindanao, citing among others threats to their safety.

Yung mga fears ni President na they might be subject to reprisal is hindi siguro mangyayari dahil nasa kampo lang sila. They don’t go out sa camps na mag-isa lang, may kasa-kasama sila na tropa or they are also armed [The President’s fears that they might be subject to reprisal probably won’t happen because they stay in the camp. They don’t go out alone, they are accompanied by troops or they are also armed],” Mr. Lorenzana told lawmakers.

He said there are only 107 US soldiers in Zamboanga, from more than 600 before.

“What they are doing is that they are conducting limited military and limited civil and military exercises in the area in conjunction with our military personnel and forces but the bulk of their job is to manage their assets in Zamboanga City,” said Mr. Lorenzana.

“Let us also remember that these people are also combatants. They are not civilians subject to kidnapping by terrorists,” Mr. Lorenzana also pointed out.

Mindanao, particularly its southwestern area, has long been the scene of intermittent fighting between government troops and the Abu Sayyaf and similar terrorist groups.

For his part, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Ricardo R. Visaya told lawmakers the military supports Mr. Duterte’s stand on US forces in Mindanao.

“He is our commander-in-chief and we are always behind him,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Philippine government late Tuesday took exception to remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in his opening statement at the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council that day, criticizing the “President of the Philippines’s statements of scorn for international human rights law” as showing “a striking lack of understanding of our human rights institutions and the principles which keep societies safe.”

Mr. Zeid’s remarks were part of an opening statement at the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council that day which also served as a report on the human rights situation worldwide. Syria, Venezuela, and Turkey topped the concerns in his address.

“Empowering police forces to shoot to kill any individual whom they claim to suspect of drug crimes, with or without evidence, undermines justice,” Mr. Zeid said of the Philippines. “The people of the Philippines have a right to judicial institutions that are impartial, and operate under due process guarantees; and they have a right to a police force that serves justice.”

“I strongly encourage the Philippines to extend an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. My Office is ready to assist, including with respect to rule of law institutions and the prevention and treatment of drug use in accordance with international norms,” he added.

In response, Mr. Duterte’s Spokesperson Ernesto C. Abella said in a statement Mr. Duterte is “a respecter of human rights,” but has been “firm in saying that human rights cannot be used as an excuse to let the spread of drugs in the country run rampant.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), for its part, issued a statement saying that Cecilia B. Rebong, the Philippines’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, “today corrected the report” by Mr. Zeid and “stated that President Rodrigo Duterte has never empowered police officers to ‘shoot to kill’ any individual whom they claim to suspect of drug crimes.”

“What he said was the police have the right to defend themselves when their lives are endangered when drug suspects violently resist arrest,” the DFA said in its statement.

Delivering the Philippine statement on the second day of the 33rd Session of the Human Rights Council in response to Mr. Al Hussein’s report, Ambassador

The DFA also said Ms. Rebong noted in the Philippine statement that Mr. Duterte “affirmed in no vague language his respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

“She pointed out that President Duterte has, in fact, urged civil rights organizations (NGOs and CSOs) to report any killings which are not in accordance with his pronouncements on the anti-illegal drug campaign,” the DFA also said. -- main report by Reuters, with Raynan F. Javil and Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral