Historic international ruling on South China Sea 'just paper' fit for rubbish bin: Philippine President Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's latest remarks appear to be aimed at appeasing China. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte said on Wednesday (May 6) the historic legal victory for the Philippines against China over the South China Sea amounted to "just paper" fit for the rubbish bin.

"That paper, in reality among nations, is just paper. It's nothing… In street talk, I will tell you to give it to me, and I will tell you it's just paper. I'll throw it into the wastebasket," he said in his weekly televised address meant to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

His latest remarks appear to be aimed at appeasing China, which currently supplies the bulk of the Covid-19 vaccine needs of the Philippines.

But the president's conciliatory tone came just hours after a Philippine navy-led task force rejected an annual fishing ban imposed by China in the South China Sea. It chased away Chinese militia boats near a shoal that is just 240km off the coast of Palawan, the Philippines' westernmost province.

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China's claims over nearly all of the South China Sea, and said China violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The case was filed in 2013 by the government of then President Benigno Aquino, but the ruling was released just two weeks after Mr Duterte took office.

Mr Duterte set it aside, as he sought China's backing for his ambitious infrastructure programme and bloody drug war.

But he promised to raise it with Beijing "in due time".

He said in 2019 that the ruling was "final, binding and not subject to appeal".

Last year, he told the United Nations General Assembly that he would "reject attempts to undermine" it.

"The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon," he said then.

But Mr Duterte appears to have given up on asserting the ruling.

"I pursued it, but nothing happened," he said on Wednesday.

He said that he had raised the matter with his Chinese counterpart, Mr Xi Jinping, but that Mr Xi had repeatedly refused to recognise the ruling and told him "there might be trouble" if he kept on insisting.

Mr Duterte had, in recent weeks, been trying to placate China, even as his own Foreign Ministry fired off a barrage of diplomatic protests since reports surfaced last month that over 200 Chinese militia boats were "swarming" the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef around 320km west of the Philippine coastline.

Mr Duterte late on Monday evening sought to defuse the fallout from Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin's expletives-laced Twitter post directed at China.

He said China "remains a benefactor".

"Just because we have a conflict with China doesn't mean to say that we have to be rude and disrespectful," he said.

Days earlier, Mr Duterte had called China "a good friend".

"We owed it a big debt of gratitude, among others for the vaccines (it has donated to us)," he said.

The Philippines has inoculated close to three million of its population, mostly with vaccines from the Chinese pharmaceutical firm, Sinovac.

Mr Duterte has also sought to dial back speeches he made concerning the South China Sea when he was campaigning for president.

"I never, never in my campaign as president promised the people that I would retake the West Philippine Sea," he said, referring to parts of the South China Sea the Philippines regards as inside its exclusive economic zone.

"I did not promise that I would pressure China. I never mentioned China and the Philippines in my campaign because that was a very serious matter," he said.

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