Duterte to Obama: We're still with you in S. China Sea spat

Philippine Coast Guard officers checking a Chinese vessel in the northern Balintang Channel this week. Manila has lodged a case with a UN court challenging China's claims in the South China Sea.
Philippine Coast Guard officers checking a Chinese vessel in the northern Balintang Channel this week. Manila has lodged a case with a UN court challenging China's claims in the South China Sea.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MANILA • President-elect Rodrigo Duterte says he has told US President Barack Obama that the Philippines will remain allied with the US in a spat with China over the South China Sea but may negotiate directly with Beijing if multilateral talks falter.

In a television interview on Tuesday, Mr Duterte said he had assured Mr Obama during a phone conversation that "we will continue with our mutual interests, and that we are allied with the Western (world) on this issue". "But I gave him an inkling that, well, I would agree to just go with you. But if it goes on still waters… there's no wind to move the sail, I might opt to go bilateral," he told GMA-News.

He said Mr Obama had advised him to wait for a ruling, due in weeks, by a United Nations arbitration court on a case filed by the Philippines challenging China's claims in the South China Sea.

China claims nearly all of the sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) worth of ship-borne trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have competing claims to parts of the waterway.

Relations between China and the Philippines hit rock bottom under outgoing president Benigno Aquino over conflicting claims to parts of the sea. To enforce its claims, China in recent years has built artificial islands with military-grade airstrips on contested reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the southern half of the sea. It has also deployed missile batteries and warplanes in the Paracel Islands in the northern half of the waterway.

Mr Duterte, who will be sworn into office on June 30, has earlier said that he intended to continue backing multilateral efforts - including Asean's initiatives - to settle disputes with China.

But he also repeated a campaign pledge to hold direct talks with China if other negotiations faltered during the next two years. He has suggested that he is willing to set aside Manila's claims if China agrees to build railways across the Philippines and join in exploring for resources in contested waters.

Mr Duterte said he wanted friendlier relations between the Philippines and China. "I would rather be friendly with everybody," he said.

Raul Dancel

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte to Obama: We're still with you in S. China Sea spat'. Print Edition | Subscribe