PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte on Wednesday, Nov. 8, said he will raise maritime issues between the Philippines and China at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Vietnam.
Earlier that day, Mr. Duterte’s Defense secretary, Delfin N. Lorenzana, said the Philippines and China will negotiate a military protocol to avoid maritime “miscalculations,” following a brief standoff near a Philippine-occupied island in a disputed part of the South China Sea.
In a news conference Wednesday afternoon marking his departure for Vietnam, Mr. Duterte said he would take up with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, maritime issues in the disputed waters that observers say have been sidestepped since the 2016 arbitral ruling in the Philippines’ favor initiated by the previous Aquino administration.
“So tanungin ko lang siya (So I will ask [Mr. Xi]), what are the stakes? You want to control the passage, or do we have free passage? Unbridled, undisturbed, unmolested, while we use that small way from the Indian Ocean which is facing Palawan,” Mr. Duterte said.
He acknowledged Chinese support for the Philippines particularly during the Marawi siege, but said this should not be used as “bargaining chips on what is the greater interest of Southeast Asia and more particularly the higher interest of our country.”
Mr. Duterte also said the Philippines must engage as well in a dialogue with other nations also asserting claims on the disputed waters.
“It’s about time ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries — not really to confront, but to — make clear to us what China really wants,” he said in part.
“So it’s about time, either in the bilateral or in the plenary, I should be bringing this important matter to the surface. So that we will know when can we be safe in traveling the China-expans(e) — because they have claimed it now.”
In a forum also on Wednesday, former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert F. del Rosario chided the ASEAN for being “adrift” amid the issues concerning the region and for its “lack of leadership.”
“If ASEAN pursues an over abundance of caution, it risks becoming only a bystander to the events within its own region,” said Mr. Del Rosario, a participant in the arbitration case against China, regarding the regional bloc which holds its 31st summit in Manila next week.
On a related controversy, Mr. Duterte appeared to hedge when asked about his order to scrap plans of building a fishermen’s shelter on a sandbar in the disputed sea following Beijing’s protest, as Mr. Lorenzana had claimed early on Wednesday.
“No. China never….In fairness to China, it never talked a strong arm [inaudible],” Mr. Duterte said in part.
Mr. Lorenzana had said, “We tried to put some structures (on) one of the sandbars near our island and the Chinese reacted.”
“And so the President came to know about this and he said: ‘Let’s pull out.’”
Mr. Lorenzana also disclosed, “We intend to sit down with China to draft and agree on a protocol to resolve immediately any incident.”
“We hope to avoid any miscalculations in the disputed areas so we need the protocol to act on any problems because we cannot wait for higher authorities to decide,” he added.
Another potentially delicate matter is Mr. Duterte’s expected bilateral talks with US President Donald J. Trump, who according to a Bloomberg report quoting a White House official, will take up the human rights situation in the Philippines’ drug war.
Mr. Duterte has been sensitive to that matter, as raised then by Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack H. Obama, Jr. Mr. Duterte has since become steadfastly critical of Mr. Obama even long after the latter’s presidency.
But asked about his forthcoming meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Duterte said, “I have to hear them first before I make my response. Because it will be based on the outcome of their talks and the points that would touch the Philippines, I said, I would have to decide what is best for my country alone.” — reports by Reuters, AFP, interaksyon.com and Rosemarie A. Zamora