Philippine presidential front-runner Duterte says he will hold talks with China over South China Sea dispute

Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a campaign rally in Manila, the Philippines, on May 1, 2016. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

MANILA (Bloomberg) - Mr Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking Davao City mayor who is leading Philippine presidential polls, said he will hold bilateral talks with China to resolve a territorial dispute in the South China Sea if the current multilateral discussions do not bear fruit within two years.

Mr Duterte told supporters Sunday (May 1) night on Liwasang Bonifacio square in Manila that he will defend Philippine claims in the contested waters while remaining open to the possibility of joint exploration for energy assets with China.

He may also ask China to help build key railway projects connecting Manila to provinces and for assistance with a long-standing plan for a train system in Mindanao, his home region. "If negotiations will be in still waters in one or two years, I will talk to the Chinese," Mr Duterte, 71, told a crowd of about a thousand people.

Bilateral talks would mark a departure from the policy of outgoing President Benigno Aquino, who has brought China before an international arbitration panel to try to resolve the dispute, leading to a deterioration in bilateral ties.

China has been more aggressively asserting its claims to more than 80 per cent of the waterway in recent years, reclaiming more than 3,000 acres of land to build out artificial islands that will better allow it to project force in waters that are a rich fishing ground for the Philippines.

Mr Duterte has said he will tout the Philippines' alliance with Western powers such as the US to get China to accept the Philippine position. He also said he would ride a jet ski to a disputed island occupied by China and personally stake the Philippines' claims.

China has failed to recognise the legitimacy of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague to deal with the dispute and said it will only engage in bilateral talks with claimant states over the water, which hosts about US$5 trillion in shipping a year. China's claims to most of the South China Sea overlaps with those of the Philippines and four other states.

Mr Duterte, was leading the field of five candidates for the May 9 election with 33 per cent support, with Senator Grace Poe in second place with 22 per cent, according to the latest opinion poll by Pulse Asia Research Inc. released by ABS-CBN on April 29.

Mr Duterte, who ruled Davao for 22 years and is credited with improving security and the economy of the southern city, also told supporters during his May 1 speech that he would not live in the presidential residence; has no plans to hold a big inaugural event; and will shun banquets with foreign envoys.

He also pledged to appoint a non-politician to head the transportation department, pursue a fair peace deal with all Muslim rebels and work for genuine land reform that will improve the lot of farmers. His administration will pour 1 billion pesos per region to boost small and mid-sized businesses.

The mayor, accused of not declaring tens of millions of dollars in assets, questioned how Senator Antonio Trillanes got access to information on his bank accounts when Philippine laws guarantee deposit secrecy.

Sen Trillanes and Mr Duterte's lawyer are meeting on Monday at the Julia Vargas branch of the Bank of the Philippine Islands to discuss the mayor's alleged undisclosed accounts.

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