Duterte banks on diplomatic capital in maritime talks with China

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 29 2019 01:18 PM

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shake hands after the Chinese leader signed the guest book at the Malacañang Palace in Manila, Philippines, November 20, 2018. Mark Cristino/Pool via Reuters

MANILA- President Rodrigo Duterte may leverage on the Philippines' warmer ties with China when he asserts Manila's rights over the West Philippine Sea, its envoy to Beijing said Thursday.

Duterte has "exerted a lot of diplomatic capital to build a reservoir of goodwill and friendship" with China in the years leading to his "high-stakes" meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana said.

"I think the President (Duterte) has made it clear that from his point of view, the time has come," Sta. Romana told reporters in Beijing.

"He's not coming here to provoke the Chinese, he's coming here to exchange views, to understand where the differences lie. He's here to build bridges with China, not to burn bridges with China," he said.

The Philippine envoy explained that President Duterte thought discussing the maritime dispute halfway through his presidency was the right thing to do since there are "sensitive issues that may have caused misunderstanding if it were brought up in the past."

Duterte, who veered away from the Philippines’ oldest ally the United States at the start of his term, was expected to seek China's concessions in light of tensions in the disputed waters.

The Philippine leader arrived in Beijing Wednesday night.

Duterte had said he would raise Manila's arbitral victory which invalidated Beijing's sweeping claims in the disputed waters in his meeting with Xi on Thursday night.

He also said he planned to discuss a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, and an oil and gas sharing agreement.

“I’m going to China to talk. Did I not tell you before, that before my term ends, I will be talking about the [South] China Sea?” Duterte earlier said.

Sta. Romana said Duterte had mentioned Manila's arbitral victory in past meetings with Xi but not in a "direct or honest discussion." Thursday's meeting would be an "opportunity" to cleary discuss the matter, he said.

"We have no illusion that we can solve the issue overnight. I think the important thing is to bring it to the fore of the diplomatic agenda," he said.