MANILA—Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Thursday backed President Rodrigo Duterte's non-combative stance in the West Philippine Sea, saying the arbitration court's ruling did not state that China should leave the shoals within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
The Hague ruling said the Philippines has a stake in the Scarborough Shoal, but it did not say that China should leave the area, Sotto said in an online press conference.
"Sa pagkaalam ko sa ruling, sinasabi lang doon na ang Pinas ay may pag-aari, may stake doon pero wala ako nakikita sinabi ni tribunal na dapat lisanin ng China at ibigay sa Pinas ang ibang area," he said.
(As far as I know, the ruling only said that the Philippines has a stake there, but the tribunal did not say China should leave and surrender the area to the Philippines.)
"I'm sure ganoon ang dating sa presidente. It does not mean that it will diminish the efforts of DND (Department of National Defense). It's just a way of saying na itong mga nagpipintas dito 'di rin alam ang nangyayari."
(I'm sure that's how the president took it. It does not mean that it will diminish the efforts of the DND. It's just a way of saying that critics do not even know what is happening.)
Sotto did not say which critics he was referring to, but Duterte recently challenged former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario to a fist fight, and former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio to a debate over the West Philippine Sea issue.
Del Rosario and Carpio were part of the Philippine delegation that filed an arbitral case against China before a Hague court in 2013.
In 2016, shortly after Duterte became president, the arbitral court invalidated China's sweeping 9-dash line claim in the South China Sea, saying the resource-rich West Philippine Sea belongs exclusively to the Philippines.
Duterte has refused to enforce the ruling as he turned to China for loans to fund his administration's massive infrastructure project, as well as for vaccines against COVID-19.
"The bottom line is we negotiate or we go to war," Sotto said.
"We can always strive for better relations," he added, noting that he is set to meet with the Chinese Ambassador next week.
The Senate President said a common friend invited him to attend an "informal" meeting with Chinese envoys where the West Philippine Sea issue "will be surely discussed."
Despite several diplomatic protests from the Philippines, around 200 ships are still moored at West Philippine Sea, a geospatial intelligence firm said.
As of May 3, some 7 ships were only spotted over Julian Felipe Reef, while another 150 ships were also located about 9 nautical miles over Hughes Reef, which is part of the Union Banks, according to satellite images.
During the 2016 campaign, Duterte said he would ride a “Jet Ski” and plant the Philippine flag in disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea to assert the country's sovereignty in the area despite Chinese aggression in the area.
Earlier this month, Duterte, who has repeatedly described China as a friend, denied that he brought up the issue with Asia's largest economy while campaigning.