Rodrigo Duterte won't raise shoal issue in China

President Rodrigo Duterte has said he will set aside disputes Manila has with Beijing over the South China Sea when he visits China next week.

"I'll go to China. We're okay with them. But let's not touch on the Scarborough issue for now. We can't solve it. Even if we get mad, it's all hot air," he said at a forum on Monday. He was referring to Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 220km west of the main Philippine island of Luzon.

China seized control of Scarborough Shoal after a two-month stand-off in 2012 that began when a Philippine Navy frigate seized eight Chinese fishing boats suspected of poaching around the atoll.

The US mediated a deal and both sides were told to withdraw. The Philippines pulled out its ships, but China stayed, and later sealed off the entire atoll. Since then, China has been chasing Filipino fishermen away from Scarborough, often using water cannons, blow horns and rubber dinghies.

Yesterday, Mr Duterte said he could not assert an international tribunal's ruling in July on a case filed by Manila striking down Beijing's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, without provoking a war. "We filed. We won. Okay, if I insist and they don't want to give in, I'll attack them and start a war. We'll be humiliated. It will be a massacre. To top it all, the battleground will be Palawan, not Massachusetts or New York." He said, however, he would personally ask President Xi Jinping during his state visit to China from Oct 18 to 21, to "allow our fishermen brothers to return" to the shoal.

In August, he asked China to allow Filipinos to fish near the shoal, saying: "I hope the Chinese… treat us as... brothers, not enemies, and take note of our plight… especially our fishermen. They are there because they are poor."

Despite the plea, the Philippines reported at least three incidents last month when its fishermen were harassed by Chinese coast guard ships near the atoll.

Raul Dancel

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte won't raise shoal issue in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe