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By Maria Eloisa I. Calderon

Philippines prepared to set aside Hague gains for talks

Posted on July 28, 2016

THE PHILIPPINES will now be taking the diplomatic route in resolving its maritime dispute with China, the country’s foreign affairs chief announced yesterday, through bilateral talks where having the Hague verdict as the anchor “may or may not happen.”

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte meets visiting US State Secretary John F. Kerry at Malacañan Palace on July 27 in this official photo e-mailed to media.
Reviving long-dormant bilateral dialogues could be an initial attempt to ease tensions arising from the historic ruling that favored the Philippines and angered China, foreign policy experts said while warning that omitting reference to the Hague award in the Manila-Beijing talks could signal China is about to have its way.

“You would understand that while the arbitral tribunal had laid the legal basis for us to move forward in making sure that [in so far as] our disputes with China is concerned will be resolved peacefully, that legal basis will now have to give way to the diplomatic processes that we have to pursue precisely for the peaceful resolution of this dispute,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto R. Yasay told a media briefing on Wednesday just before his bilateral meeting with US Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

Mr. Kerry -- so far the highest official from Washington to visit Manila after the May 9 national elections -- had said on Tuesday in Vientiane, Laos that he supports the resumption of bilateral talks between China and the Philippines over disputed areas of the South China Sea.

That’s after China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked him to, during a meeting between the two in the Laotian capital.

On Wednesday, Mr. Kerry told journalists in Manila: “When we say that we’re urging negotiations, we do so understanding obviously that our friend and ally, the Philippines, can only do so on terms that are acceptable to the government of the Philippines.”

“But still please be mindful of what we believe is the impact to the judgment or decision,” he added.

“We hope to see a process that will narrow the geographic scope of the maritime disputes, set standards for the behavior in contested areas and lead to mutually acceptable solutions perhaps even a series confidence-building steps. We hope to see a diplomatic process between and among claimants without coercion or the use of force.”

The Vientiane meeting of foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) yielded a communique that indeed mentioned the South China Sea but was silent on the landmark July 12 Hague award.

The Philippines “vigorously pushed” for the inclusion of the arbitral ruling in the joint statement, Mr. Yasay told journalists yesterday, adding that the failure should not be taken as a diplomatic win for China.

“I am just saying this to dispel the reports that have been said that China came out victorious in the ASEAN meeting because we precisely agreed to not mentioning the arbitral award,” the Philippine foreign minister said.

“But that [was] not the object of our meeting in ASEAN. The arbitral award is a matter between China and the Philippines.”

The US, whom China has repeatedly blamed for taking sides in the dispute and accused of influencing ASEAN officials over their China policy, said the communique -- sans the Hague mention -- showed a unified bloc that “supported the rule of law.”

“I was very satisfied with the fact that the communique clearly referenced all legal rights, all legal decisions, legal process, without mentioning arbitration but sometimes frankly… in diplomacy you don’t have to always include every single word that may in fact sometimes make it harder to get to the dialogue you want to get to,” Mr. Kerry told reporters in Manila.

“But every single value of rule of law is embraced in that communique.”

But with the Philippines and China alone -- without ASEAN -- headed for a dialogue soon, how much priority Manila will give to the hard-fought gains it made from the Hague arbitration is unclear.

Asked whether the landmark decision will be at the core of the bilateral talks, Mr. Yasay replied: “Whether you’d like to say that it will make reference to the arbitral tribunal is something that may or may not happen, but the objective is to resolve the dispute within the context of these principles of international law and specifically the 1982 UNCLOS.”

China had refused to accept the July 12 ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, earlier arguing that at the heart of the dispute is the territorial sovereignty over maritime features in the South China Sea, which it said is beyond the scope of the UNCLOS, shorthand for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“It’s clear that the Duterte administration isn’t interested in using the verdict to taunt China, and it’s willing to tone down its position in the issue provided that it paves the way for reopening communication channels with Beijing,” Richard J. Heydarian, an international studies professor at the De La Salle University (DLSU), said in a text message.

Fellow DLSU foreign policy expert Renato C. De Castro said: “The decision now is to try to manage the tension by putting the lid on the Hague ruling, thus the South China Sea dispute.”

“The award is not the end, it’s a means to pursue diplomatic negotiations,” he explained.

“But the US will basically see that we conduct this bilateral negotiation without dropping the award given by the PCA [Permanent Court of Arbitration].”

President Rodrigo R. Duterte convened a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) after a meeting with Mr. Kerry.

The NSC meeting yesterday afternoon was the first in over six years, with the maritime dispute high on the agenda, a statement from Malacañan Palace said.

Former President Fidel V. Ramos, who was appointed as special envoy to China, attended that meeting, with three other former Philippine leaders: Benigno S.C. Aquino III whose government haled China to the Hague court in 2013, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and Joseph E. Estrada.

With the appointment of Mr. Ramos, Mr. Yasay said bilateral talks “would be pursued as soon as possible and we’re hoping that China will come up with a position that would allow these bilateral talks to proceed.” -- with inputs from FGE