South China Sea issue takes a back seat for now: Duterte

Mr Duterte (centre) chatting with members of the Filipino community at the Grand Hyatt Beijing hotel in China yesterday. He said that he would be asking for "the help of China" during his four-day state visit.
Mr Duterte (centre) chatting with members of the Filipino community at the Grand Hyatt Beijing hotel in China yesterday. He said that he would be asking for "the help of China" during his four-day state visit.PHOTO: REUTERS

Philippine President won't raise matter but instead wait for Xi to mention it when they meet in Beijing today

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that as a guest of China, he will not raise the South China Sea arbitral ruling and will instead wait for his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to mention it when they meet today.

Mr Duterte, who arrived here on Tuesday night on a four-day state visit accompanied by a 200-strong business delegation, stressed that this was not the "time to quarrel" and that the South China Sea issue will take a back seat for now.

He said the ruling is "on a piece of paper" that can be revisited at a later time and discussions will be confined to issues written on it.

"I have to be courteous and I have to wait for Mr President to mention it in passing for me to respond. In the oriental way, you always wait, because I'm a visitor, I cannot destroy the goodwill by just blurting out something," he said.

Mr Duterte was responding to media queries at the Grand Hyatt Beijing hotel yesterday evening before meeting the Filipino community.

"I did not come here to agree to talk about the (South) China Sea. You can say it will take a back seat."

THE ORIENTAL WAY

I have to be courteous and I have to wait for Mr President to mention it in passing for me to respond. In the oriental way, you always wait, because I'm a visitor, I cannot destroy the goodwill by just blurting out something.

PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE, on how it was not the "time to quarrel" over the South China Sea arbitral ruling. He is accompanied by a 200-strong business delegation on his visit to China.

Asked if he had toured any part of Beijing yesterday, Mr Duterte said he caught up on sleep and also prepared for his meetings with Mr Xi and other Chinese leaders at the Great Hall of the People.

Mr Duterte told the media that the two sides' foreign ministries had already held preliminary talks to sort out a broad agenda on the South China Sea issue.

Bilateral ties between the two countries have been strained in recent years, especially after the Philippines, under Mr Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino, filed the arbitration case against China in 2013.

In July this year, an arbitral tribunal at The Hague ruled in favour of Manila. China has refused to accept the ruling while Mr Duterte has chosen to downplay it, in efforts to seek fresh investments and loans from China. He reiterated that he will be asking for "the help of China" during his visit, specifically soft loans.

On the issue of whether Beijing will allow Filipino fishermen to return to the Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal to fish, Mr Duterte said he will leave it to the Chinese government to decide although the issue will be discussed.

In his 40-minute meeting with the media, he spent more than half the time lashing out at the West, including the United States, for criticising his heavy-handed crackdown on crime.

He defended his decision to pivot towards Beijing, saying that China "has not invaded a piece of my country all these generations".

Asked by American media if he prefers Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton to be the next US president, Mr Duterte said he would answer readily if he were an ordinary citizen, but as president, he is bound by law and protocol not to side with anybody.

"If you whisper to me... I will tell you and you'd be surprised," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2016, with the headline 'S. China Sea issue takes a back seat for now: Duterte'. Print Edition | Subscribe