Duterte’s last resort on West PH Sea: Let’s not insist on ownership

LIPA CITY, Philippines – A ruling on the Philippines’ case against China by an international tribunal on the West Philippine Sea dispute could come in April or May this year.

Rodrigo Duterte, the front-runner of the presidential race, said that if the case drags on too long, say for 3 years, or if China refuses to abide by the decision, the practical next step is to “make deals.”

“If the negotiation is not being done, or it is in still waters until now, maybe 3 years from now, I have to talk. You know, you have a problem, you have to make deals,” he said in Cainta on Tuesday, April 12.

One way to begin the process of bilateral talks, or one-on-one negotiations with China, he said, is to leave behind the discussion of who owns the disputed areas of the West Philippine Sea. (READ: SC Justice: Next president can't concede PH seas)

“We will not insist on the ownership for the simple reason that we cannot enforce our desire to own,” said Duterte on Thursday, April 15.

The Mindanaoan presidential bet has previously said he is open to joint exploration of the area with China, even saying that if the Philippines cannot put up the capital to conduct the exploration, he would be happy if China built 3 major railways for the country instead.

'Won't surrender' West PH Sea

But Duterte also insists he will not relinquish the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea.

“I have told you before, that piece of water there is ours. Dapat maintindihan ng China ‘yan (China should understand that). I will never, ever surrender sovereignty over that area,” he said in Cainta.

Is not insisting on ownership of the West Philippine Sea not tantamount to giving up sovereign rights?

At this point, his running mate Alan Peter Cayetano stepped in to explain that there is no contradiction.

“There’s no conflict. You have joint exploration without giving up sovereignty. It’s like you told your neighbor, ‘let’s not talk about who owns that but let’s split the profits.’ There are legal formulas around the world recognized by the US, accepting that,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

But China has implicitly said it would not go into negotiations until the Philippines first recognizes the Asian superpower’s ownership over the West Philippines Sea.

President Benigno Aquino III has said before that pursuing joint exploration is fine – as long as it is conducted on the Philippines’ terms, not China’s. 

China has also pushed for joint exploration before – but always under the premise that it exercises indisputable sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea.

In 2005, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam formed an agreement to jointly explore the disputed waters. The Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking expired in 2008 without the government extending it, in the face of public criticism. (READ: SC asked: Void expired PH-China offshore oil exploration pact)

Leverage

But what if the Philippines wins the arbitration case? The country can now use the decision as leverage to call on the help of its powerful allies like the United States, said Duterte and Cayetano.

“We will wait for America. They’re always conducting joint exercises here. I will not commit Filipino soldiers,” said Duterte.

Cayetano explained, “If we win the arbitration case, the Mutual Defense Treaty kicks in. Right now, the US is saying they will stand by us but it’s not categorical that the territory is ours. If we win, we can now tell US, [China] is invading us so they can now step in.”

The Aquino administration’s strategy is to use the decision of the international tribunal as leverage, not necessarily for military assistance, but to resume bilateral talks with China.

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose once told reporters, “Once we have a decision by the court which is favorable, we can at least negotiate from a stronger position." 

But what appears to be a non-negotiable for Duterte is his refusal to go to war with China.

“If there will be a war, the battleground would be the Philippines. The first to be hit would be Palawan. I am not ready for that,” he said.

China once opened the doors for bilateral talks "with no preconditions" even while the international arbitration on the Philippines' case was ongoing.

The Aquino government, however, rejected the offer thinking it would weaken the arbitration case, since, in the filing in the arbitration, the Philippines asserted that bilateral means had already been exhausted.

But government officials, including Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, now running for vice president, rejected the Aquino government's decision not to take China's offer, saying it was a missed opportunity to resolve differences between the two countries.

Aside from Duterte, Vice President Jejomar Binay is another presidential bet who is in favor of bilateral talks with China.

In terms of Duterte’s foreign policy on the West Philippine Sea, many questions remain.

How will he forge a deal with China without surrendering the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the disputed waters?

Will he also use a favorable decision of the international tribunal as leverage for bilateral talks with China?

Is leaving behind the discussion on ownership strategic for the Philippines or can this be interpreted as a loss for the Philippines? – With reports from Paterno Esmaquel/Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

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 pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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