Manila: The Philippines has backtracked on its stance and will hold bilateral talks with China on investments, infrastructure development, and trade and will temporarily suspend talks to resolve overlapping claim in the South China Sea, a senior official said.
“The natural effect of engaging China in other areas of concern will precisely open the door for more open discussions of the [maritime] dispute with the view of resolving the dispute peacefully,” said Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay in a forum organised by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, transcript of which reached his office in Manila on Saturday.
“To begin with, we cannot proceed on engaging China in bilateral talks where China says that we can only talk outside of the framework of the arbitral tribunal’s decision,” said Yasay.
He referred to the July 25 ruling of The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that China’s entire claim of the South China Sea is illegal; its expansion of shoals and rocks into artificial islands in the South China Sea wrong; and it should open the Scarborough Shoal it occupied 230 kilometre west of Zambales, northern Luzon in 2012, because it is a common fishing ground for all claimants of the South China Sea.
China has refused to recognise PCA’s ruling and never joined its legal process since the case was filed against Beijing in 2013.
“This is what President Rodrigo Duterte means in the context of saying that we must pursue an independent foreign policy; that is what our constitution mandates, to pursue amity with all nations,” explained Yasay.
“Relations between China and the Philippines should go beyond the South China Sea issue,” said political analyst Prospero de Vera, adding that widened China-Philippine ties could help resolve the maritime problem.
If the Philippine government has backtracked from planned bilateral talks with China on the said issue, it could be “a balancing act,” said another analyst Alfredo Crespo.
President Rodrigo Duterte has adopted a practical foreign policy with China, explained pro-China analysts in Manila.
Earlier, after the PCA ruling that favoured the Philippines, Duterte said he wanted bilateral talks with China so that Filipino fishermen on the western seaboard of northern Luzon could fish at the Scarborough Shoal.
The United States, a Philippine defence ally, wants multilateral and not bilateral talks in resolving the maritime issue.
Duterte has been issuing anti-US statements, but senior Philippine officials have affirmed the strengthening of Washington-Manila ties.
China, Vietnam, and Taiwan claim the whole of the South China Sea based on historical rights. Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines claim their respective 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone in the same sea based on the provision of the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Some $5.3 trillion (Dh19.47 trillion) worth of trade passes in the same sea every year.