Despite leading a diplomatic shift in favor of stronger relations with China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday, December 29 recognized the authority of an international ruling which voids Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea.
The president made those comments during an interview with CNN Philippines’ Pinky Webb. He went on to say that, if China began extracting fossil fuels from sites designated as neutral territory by the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), he would insist on official talks with the Chinese government.
“I cannot let [the issue] pass,” Duterte told Webb on Thursday.
However, Duterte also said that neither his administration nor policymakers in Beijing were prepared to negotiate their lingering disputes.
The PCA’s award — issued on Tuesday, July 12 — is legally binding, but the court lacks any mechanism to enforce it. Beijing has since ignored and repeatedly condemned the ruling, according to prior reports from the Asian Journal and other sources.
Chinese military vessels that had barred Filipinos from working in the Scarborough Shoal since a naval standoff took place there in 2012 continued to harass fishing boats for months after the PCA announced its decision.
In October, fishermen in the area reported that they had been able to return to the Shoal following efforts by the Duterte administration to improve diplomatic and economic ties with China.
On Thursday, Duterte went on to downplay the gravity of images published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggesting that Beijing has further militarized several installations it had constructed in contested areas.
“If it was really a serious concern, then the United States should lead the way and stop it … right at the beginning, when the first spade of soil was tossed…” Duterte said on Thursday.
“Why raise an issue putting the country into distress [when] wala ka na pa lang gawin (you are not going to do anything)?” he later asked rhetorically.
Duterte said the United States was the only entity capable of seriously challenging the South Pacific’s largest economic and military force. He predicted a tremendous loss of life should the Philippines enter armed conflict with China with or without American military backing.
The president confirmed his intention to end the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a deal between the Philippines and the U.S. that grants legal status to U.S. soldiers stationed in the Philippines and gives American military courts jurisdiction over crimes they commit while they are there. Duterte did, however, note resistance in his efforts to do so.
“I’m still trying to figure out, kasi marame na ka galit sa akin [because there are many now angry with me],” he said on Thursday. “… even the military.”
Duterte said the resistance from some members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines was rooted in a long tradition of cooperation between the Filipino and American soldiers. He has called for the end of a number of other arrangements with U.S. forces in hopes of reducing the island nation’s reliance on Western powers.
Representatives of the Duterte administration say the government’s current foreign policy approach has contributed to increased economic growth in the Philippines, according to Voice of America News.
“[The Philippines] is still one of the least dependent economies on China across the region,” Rahul Bajoria, a regional economist with Barclays in Singapore, told VOA News. “But over time, given the way the dynamics are playing out, the impact of China is expected to grow over the next three to five years.”