Palace: Duterte tackled Hague ruling with Xi apologetically



MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte struck an apologetic tone during his meeting last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping where he raised the 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.

“The President said, ‘I didn’t want to alarm you with what I’m about to raise because of your problem in Hong Kong, which is why I’m asking for forgiveness, but I need to say this because I promised my countrymen,” presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said on Sunday, quoting the President as telling Xi.

In response, “President Xi said, ‘I understand and I am OK with it,” Panelo said in an interview with Radyo Inquirer.
Xi, however, reiterated his country’s rejection of the arbitral ruling, Panelo said.

‘Unequivocal but friendly’
Though no agreement was reached, he said, the two leaders vowed to work closer for a regional code of conduct to manage the territorial disputes in the resource-rich waterway.

Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also dispute China’s sweeping claim.

Disclosing more details of the Aug. 29 bilateral meeting, Panelo said the President was “unequivocal but friendly” in invoking the ruling of the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

“The two presidents had mutual respect for each other,” Panelo said.

Asked if there was tension during the discussions, Panelo replied: “Definitely none… You know, if there’s mutual respect, there’s no tension.”

Before the President’s five-day visit to China, his fifth since assuming the presidency, Mr. Duterte made a public pledge to finally raise the Hague ruling after many times refusing to do so.

Mr. Duterte had adamantly refused to assert the ruling, preferring to improve relations with China to obtain aid, loans and investment.

He had always argued that he didn’t want to go to war with China.

Philippine challenge
The Philippines under President Benigno Aquino III challenged in the Hague court in 2013 China’s claim that it owned more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, which includes waters in the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Philippines brought the challenge after China seized Panatag Shoal—a rich fishing ground known internationally as Scarborough Shoal and located about 200 kilometers off the coast of Zambales province—after a two-month standoff between Philippine and Chinese coast guard vessels.

Two weeks after the President assumed office in 2016, the tribunal ruled that China’s claim had no basis in international law and that it had violated the Philippines’ sovereign right to fish and explore resources in the West Philippine Sea, the waters within the country’s 370-km exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

China, which did not take part in the arbitration, ignored the ruling and proceeded to build artificial islands on seven Philippine-claimed reefs in the South China Sea that it later developed into military outposts.

The United States and its Western allies, however, keep on challenging China’s claim, frequently sailing warships near the artificial islands in what they call freedom of navigation operations.