Manila, Beijing downplay talk of war

President Xi Jinping (right) and President Rodrigo Duterte  at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China,  on May 15.
President Xi Jinping (right) and President Rodrigo Duterte at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on May 15. PHOTO: EPA

MANILA • The Philippines and China have played down a warning by President Rodrigo Duterte that China would go to war if the Philippines drilled for oil in the disputed South China Sea.

The outspoken Philippine President has been facing criticism at home for being what some people see as too soft on China over a long-running territorial dispute.

Mr Duterte met Chinese President Xi Jinping for talks in Beijing last week and later said Mr Xi had warned him there would be war if the Philippines tried to explore for oil in a disputed stretch of sea.

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said their meeting was frank and friendly, and the discussion was largely about preventing conflict, not threatening it.

"The conversation was very frank. There was mutual respect; there was mutual trust," Mr Cayetano told reporters yesterday.

"The context was not threatening each other, that we will go to war. The context is how do we stabilise the region and how do we prevent conflict."

He added: "I will not contradict the President's words. I am just telling you... my interpretation: There was no bullying or pushing around. It was not a threat."

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying also sought to make light of the Philippine President's comments, noting that Mr Duterte and Mr Xi had agreed to "strengthen communication" on important bilateral issues.

China was willing to work with the Philippines to handle disputes peacefully, she told reporters.

Mr Duterte made no mention of the issue during a news briefing yesterday before he left for Russia.

Mr Duterte's critics have made much of his refusal to push China to comply with a ruling last year by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague at the end of a case brought by the Philippines against China, which was largely in favour of the Philippines.

The court said the Philippines had a sovereign right to access offshore oil and gas fields in its Exclusive Economic Zone.

Rivals of Mr Duterte have likened his refusal to insist that China abide by the ruling as akin to surrendering sovereignty. Mr Duterte has sought to engage China more, with Beijing promising loans and investment that will be vital to his ambitious US$180 billion (S$250 billion) infrastructure overhaul.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'Manila, Beijing downplay talk of war'. Print Edition | Subscribe