Philippines’ Duterte treads carefully on South China Sea ruling

July 15, 2016 08:58
President Rodrigo Duterte responded to the landmark ruling by an international tribunal on the South China Sea by calling a cabinet meeting in an atmosphere of subdued victory, according to a cabinet minister. Photo: Malacanang

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is sticking to his promise not to "flaunt or taunt" an international court ruling on the South China Sea, days after his country dealt a blow to China.

Duterte held a cabinet meeting in an atmosphere “subdued victory”, Bloomberg reports, citing Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre.

On Thursday, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said he would discuss the Philippines’ “peaceful and rules-based approach on the South China Sea and the need for parties to respect the recent decision" at the Asia-Europe Meeting starting Friday in Ulaanbaatar.

The case was brought to Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who before leaving office on June 30 became one of the most vocal critics of China’s efforts to assert its claims in the South China Sea.

Duterte will be under greater domestic and international pressure to publicly oppose present Chinese actions that limit Philippine maritime rights in their exclusive economic zone," said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“Nuanced diplomacy -- a rare skill the new Duterte team has yet to display -- will be needed for the Philippines to leverage this ruling into better relations with China and support at home.”

About 80 percent of Filipinos supported the government’s efforts at the tribunal, according to a survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations in March and only released this week.

Solicitor General Jose Calida will provide Duterte a “complete and thorough interpretation” within days, a cautious approach that buys time and reduces the possibility of antagonizing its biggest trading partner.

Duterte has said he is open to bilateral talks and China has said it hopes to return to direct negotiations but Beijing has also vowed to ignore the ruling.

"Even the Philippine government was surprised with the ruling," said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

"So, the response is appropriate enough at this point. It won’t help in the Philippines’ position if it is seen gloating after the outcome."

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