MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte, on National Heroes’ Day, called on China to consider the plight of Filipino fishermen hoping to make a living from the bounty of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
“If we continue to treat each other like brothers and understand, especially the plight of the fishermen, that’s why they are there because they are poor…The Chinese people this time might find a place in their hearts for Filipinos,” said Duterte on Monday, August 29, to an audience that included Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua.
Filipino fishermen continue to be prevented by Chinese Coast Guard vessels from entering parts of the West Philippine Sea, including fish-abundant Scarborough Shoal, despite an international arbitration court’s ruling that China’s sweeping claims are not valid.
During his National Heroes’ Day speech, Duterte appealed to the Chinese not to treat Filipinos as enemies.
“I hope you treat us rather not as enemies and take note of the plight of our citizens,” he said.
Addressing the Chinese Ambassador, Duterte promised not to bring up the controversial West Philippine Sea ruling outside bilateral talks between Manila and Beijing.
But he said the ruling would have to be discussed once representatives of the countries are face to face in formal negotiations. (READ: Duterte to China: You can’t avoid Hague ruling)
“I will not use the judgement, arbitral, now but I would one day sit in front of the representative or you and then I will lay it bare, my position. I would say that I could not get out of the 4 corners of this document and that is the arbitral judgement,” Duterte said.
The President even managed to crack a joke about the Philippines’ military preparations against future aggression from China.
“But for now Mr Ambassador, I want to just talk to you for a moment, maybe give us time to build our forces also, you have so much superiority,” he said, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
Zhao, in a chance interview with reporters, said he appreciated Duterte’s appeal to preserve the friendship between Chinese and Filipinos.
“The Filipinos are always in the hearts of Chinese people. We have been friends, partners, even relatives, for a thousand years despite the troubles we have. We’re confident the friendship will be deepened,” said the Chinese diplomat.
Zhao repeated China’s stance of not recognizing the Hague ruling but said the Chinese are looking forward to bilateral talks between the two countries.
“We cannot accept the arbitration award but we do look forward to talk to the Philippines bilaterally of the troubles we have,” said Zhao.
As for letting Filipino fishermen fish in the West Philippine Sea, he said, “We’ll look at the possibility of how we handle it. The details are not hammered out yet but we need to discuss with the Filipino side. I don’t know the exact situation on the sea but we’ll look at the possibilities.”
Zhao emphasized the need for the two countries to discuss common interests, not just issues where their positions are conflicting.
“Right now we need to change our focus. We need to change our focus from differences to common interests so we can concentrate on cooperation that will benefit our two peoples,” he said.
Duterte’s trip to China by the end of 2016 is being planned with Zhao’s help, said Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr last August 25.
In the meantime, Duterte’s envoy to China, former president Fidel Ramos, continues informal discussions with Chinese contacts, said Duterte on Monday afternoon. – Rappler.com