Aquino goes soft on China in ASEAN Summit

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar – President Benigno Aquino III called his statements about China this time around “gentle reminders,” especially compared to his more aggressive declarations in the past few ASEAN Summits.

On Wednesday evening, November 12, Aquino told reporters his softer statements at the 25th ASEAN Summit here are because of recent “developments.”

“Of course you have to juxtapose it with all the developments that have been happening especially with us and for that matter, even Vietnam,” he said, a day after Aquino and Chinese president Xi Jinping talked at the APEC Summit in Beijing.

“We agreed to find a constructive solution. We are hopeful that both of us are really focused on finding a solution to this issue.”

The President said China may have “creative solutions” on how to solve the dispute too and he said he is “not closing the door to something we have yet to hear.”

“They might present a different solution that is acceptable to us, once its presented why don't we try to explore that possibility and resolve this issue,” he said.

Asked whether his talk with the Chinese leader changed his mind about sharing specifics on recent aggressive acts of China against the Philippines as he had originally planned, Aquino only said there was no point in bringing it up.

“We've publicized those, is there a need to beat a dead horse? How many at this point in time has been unaware of what has been happening?” he said.

The President was evidently more optimistic about the Philippines' relationship with China, adding, there is less of a chance of "backtracking... when it's the highest leaders talking."

'Nothing new'

Despite his more mellow take on China however, Aquino emphasized “we have to stick with our principles and beliefs” and gave assurances China did not ask the Philippines to withdraw its memorial when the two leaders talked.

“We're not saying anything different. [But] we're also recognizing that's an opportunity to start the dialogue again between them and ourselves,” he said.

During the ASEAN Summit Plenary Session, Aquino pushed for the urgent finalization of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea). He sought support for the Philippines' case against China from dialogue partners as well as the United Nations, and reiterated the importance of a peaceful resolution to maritime disputes. He also encouraged ASEAN member countries to negotiate with China.

Aquino said these statements were “nothing new,” but they are calmer than the “more heated with passion” intervention of the President in 2012 in Cambodia, where ASEAN failed to declare a COC after 10 years of diplomatic wrangling.

It is Aquino’s first ASEAN Summit since the Philippines submitted a memorial to a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal over a maritime dispute with China. 

The memorial, a nearly 4,000-page document, was submitted by the Philippines on March 29 in a bid to end what it considered decades of bullying by China. China however has refused to acknowledge the designated arbitral tribunal's jurisdiction to hear the case. 

Other ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei are also claimants in the disputed area. -