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Duterte: PH won't 'flaunt' sea dispute ruling vs China

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday, June 30, said he would not "flaunt" a possible ruling against China in a historic case filed by the Philippines over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). 

In his first Cabinet meeting, Duterte said the Philippines finds itself in a "cliffhanger" situation as an arbitral tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, is set to announce its ruling on the maritime case by July 12.

"Cliffhanger tayo kasi, if we decide right, we might also find some alleviation for some of the problems here. 'Pag naman sinobrahan natin, it should be a soft landing for everybody, na kung meron man, we do not really taunt or flaunt it. Soft landing lang tayo diyan," he said in the meeting that was aired live by state-run RTVM. 

(We have a cliffhanger because, if we decide right, we might also find some alleviation for some of the problems here. But if we overdo it, it should be a soft landing for everybody, that if it is there, we do not really taunt or flaunt it. We’ll have a soft landing there.)

Duterte said the government "will study progressively" how it can use the upcoming ruling. 

"Of course it would be a moral victory and put a country in an akward position. But then again, I said we have to go into the reality in our lives," the President said. 

Duterte said this "reality” is especially true in the Philippines’ case. "We need a lot of many things, hardware and all. We have to solve some of the problems that involve violence."

On the upcoming ruling, Duterte added: "We have to make up our minds. We can also prepare the people on where we will go."

He also said: "God knows I really do not want to declare any fighting with anybody. And if we can have peace by just talking, I would be very happy."

Yasay: No to 'stronger statements'

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr, for his part, recounted briefings with various representatives of foreign governments, especially those concerned about freedom of navigation and maritime security.

Referring to these foreign government representatives, Yasay said, "They seem to project the impression that if the decision will come out and it would be in our favor, they would like for us to make stronger statements."

"I am adverse to that idea, and I told them in no unmistakable terms that the first thing that we will do when we get that decision is to study its implications and its ramifications. What does it mean if we win? There are lots of nuances that we do not know as yet," he said.

In the case before The Hague, the Philippines wants an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration to declare China’s 9-dash line as baseless under international law. The 9-dash line is the demarcation used by China to claim practically the entire South China Sea.

The Philippines asserts that China’s 9-dash line encroaches on the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), an area 200 nautical miles from a coastal state’s baselines within which the state has the exclusive rights to fish and exploit resources, among other things.

The Aquino administration filed the case in The Hague to secure a long-lasting solution to the sea dispute. The government did this after tensions rose due to a standoff between Philippine and China vessels in the contested Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea. (READ: Aquino: The president who brought China to court)

Yasay: What if China puts us to a test?

On the day he took office, Duterte’s foreign secretary said: "The bottom line question is, what will happen if the decision is in our favor, meaning that the arbitral tribunal will make a declaration about the legality of the 9-dash line, and will say that this is part of our economic zone, including Scarborough Shoal? What if, in the face of these circumstances, China will dig in and put us to a test? They will disallow again our fishermen from fishing in Scarborough Shoal."

Yasay then promised to "study the case," once the decision is out, "and inform the President and the Cabinet" of his proposed action.

It was unclear if the Duterte Cabinet intended to broadcast their meeting live on television and online, as RTVM abruptly cut the broadcast as Yasay was speaking. Cabinet meetings in the Philippines usually happen behind closed doors. 

Duterte earlier said the Philippines will never "surrender" Scarborough Shoal to China. 

At the same time, Duterte wants to boost ties with China. He said Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, for one, has offered to build the Philippines a railway from Metro Manila to Clark, Pampanga, in two years. 

Referring to this offer from China, Duterte recently asked businessmen: “Can you match the offer? Because if you cannot match the offer, I will accept the goodwill of China. My job is to see to it that the people are comfortable.” – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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