Duterte's shift in tone won't overturn Manila's S.China Sea policy

By Liu Jianxi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/13 23:43:40

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday pulled back from a vow to plant the Philippine flag on China's Zhongye Dao and even offered to sell the land to Beijing when the spectacle of a war is gone, according to media reports. "Because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship, I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag," Duterte said during his Saudi Arabia visit. Meanwhile, Duterte assured Beijing that Manila will not place "any offensive weapons" in the South China Sea. These remarks were made just days after Duterte threatened to occupy all islands with armed forces.

Since assuming office, Duterte has attempted to downplay the territorial disputes with Beijing, and attached great importance to Sino-Philippine cooperation. His remarks about planting the flag surprised international observers, but were soon rowed back. Duterte's shift shows that the president is increasingly aware that China's South China Sea policy is in the interests of the Philippines and other regional countries in the long-term.

China adheres to the principle of "putting aside disputes and seeking common development" to solve the South China Sea issue, and, with economic construction as its primary goal, lays much stress on improving good-neighborly friendly ties with ASEAN countries. "Common development" is not only a way to enhance mutual understandings, but also beneficial to economic development in the region.

Meanwhile, China firmly pushes forward the "dual-track approach," which is the most practical and feasible way to address the South China Sea issue. Beijing is committed to properly settling territorial disputes through bilateral negotiations and consultations with all the countries concerned. Rules on the South China Sea should be made via negotiations with ASEAN countries.

Intervention from countries outside the region will only stir up troubles and complicate the situation. Certain Western countries, for instance, the US, intervened in the disputes on the excuse of "freedom of navigation," which has never been a problem in the South China Sea. The move is just an attempt to upset the China-ASEAN relationship. Instigated by Washington, Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino III unilaterally launched an arbitration case against Beijing. In fact, China is a victim in the South China Sea, but it has exercised restraint for the sake of regional peace and stability.

Duterte's shifts on the South China Sea are understandable. Given the clout of domestic pro-US forces, he will have to overcome a number of obstacles to cooperate with China on the South China Sea issue. Such shifts may reoccur in the future Sino-Philippine relationship. But ASEAN countries will gradually understand China's South China Sea policy in the long-term. It is unwise to speculate about the Philippines' South China Sea strategy on the basis of only a few words by Duterte.



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