MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte assured China that his administration's policy is to foster friendly ties with the regional giant, after a "misunderstanding" involving Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr apparently prompted the Chinese commerce minister to scrap a scheduled trip to Manila.
"I think Secretary Yasay was misunderstood by the Chinese government but let me assure everybody....I would like to assure China – and this is what I have committed to do when I was there – that we will talk as friends," Duterte said an event in Davao del Norte on Friday, February 24.
The Chinese foreign ministry said Yasay's remarks "deviate" from the "consensus" reached by Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the former's trip to China last year.
On Friday, Duterte said, "Nasobrahan ni Yasay (Yasay overdid it)."
The President affirmed the Philippines' "consensus" with China.
"I will not deviate from my word of honor that in my time, there will be a time in my presidency that I will raise the issue of the arbitral judgement with China, but not now," he said.
Duterte worried that the last-minute cancellation of Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng's trip to Manila on Thursday, was due to the "misunderstanding."
"Secretary of commerce was supposed to be here today, cancelled his trip, I dont know for what reason. But I said if the reason is because of the misunderstanding, I will not deviate from my word of honor," said Duterte.
He reiterated his determination not to follow the United States' foreign policy that would like to see the Philippines push the historic Hague ruling that recognized Manila's claim over the West Philippine Sea.
"We are not duty-bound to follow the foreign policy of America," said Duterte.
In his estimation, the right time to bring up the controversial ruling is when the Philippines and China have established warmer relations.
"We are not prepared to raise the issue of the arbitral award for the simple reason that we are yet to finalize the good relations between China and the Philippines. We cannot talk while we are angry at each other. We should be friends first so when we face each other, there is respect and dignity on both sides," said Duterte.
On February 21, Yasay gave a statement relaying the "grave concern" of ASEAN foreign ministers over the reported escalation of Chinese military presence in the West Philippine Sea, parts of which are being claimed by several Southeast Asian countries. (READ: China feared to house missiles in PH's Mischief Reef)
The foreign ministers and Yasay were in Boracay for the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat, part of the ASEAN 2017 events hosted by the Philippines, this year's chair.
The Philippines hopes to complete the long-awaited framework of a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
China has been seens as blocking efforts to complete the Code of Conduct, a legally-binding agreement laying down how overlapping claims in the disputed sea can be managed. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.