DFA: Arbitral ruling will not be raised at bilateral talks with China

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Arbitration hearing on the South China Sea

Highlights

  • Manalo says bilateral talks will be "broader" than arbitral ruling
  • Bilateral talks with China in May is only the "first session"
  • Manalo pegs a finished code of conduct between ASEAN and China by May
  • Manalo: There are plans to improve facilities on Pag-asa Island

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The Philippines will not be bringing up the arbitral ruling on the South China Sea during the bilateral talks with China this May, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) confirmed Wednesday.

"China has disassociated itself from the arbitral ruling, and the President has been quite clear that he will not be raising the arbitral ruling," DFA Acting Secretary Enrique Manalo told CNN Philippines' The Source. "He's not setting it aside, but he will not be raising it until an appropriate time during his administration."

He said in the meantime China and the Philippines will be taking up other issues. 

The meeting takes place after years of failed discussions with China to resolve the maritime dispute.

Related: PH, China to start maritime talks in May

Manalo said there are no exact dates for the talks yet, but they will be held at the sub-ministerial level and will be hosted by China.

China has generally exercised warmer relations with the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte shifted his foreign policy away from the West and took a more diplomatic stance on the sea row.

When pressed again as to when the ruling will finally be taken up, Manalo answered: "It will be discussed at the appropriate time."

He said the most important thing is to develop trust and confidence in the talks with China.

"That could create the atmosphere to try and achieve some possible breakthroughs," he added.

He also noted that the talks in May will only be the first of many sessions.

Code of conduct by mid-year

Manalo also said China and Southeast Asian nations are in the process of completing a framework for the code of conduct on the South China Sea.

"Hopefully if things go well maybe by May or mid-year, we will have an agreed framework," Manalo said.

He said the code, which has been in progress for 15 yeras, will include provisions on dealing with unexpected encounters at sea and managing disputes through more peaceful and diplomatic means.

"The framework is an important first step," said Manalo. "Because once that's agreed, we would now have a clear basis on which to negotiate the code."

China is claiming nearly all of the South China Sea, but the international arbitration tribunal's ruling in 2015 invalidated the claim.

Apart from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims in the region.

"I'm optimistically hopeful, because as you know it's still being negotiated, but progress has been very good and all sides have been quite cooperative," Manalo told CNN Philippines.

Improved facilities for Pag-asa

Manalo also responded to concerns about facilities and presence of troops on Pag-asa island, particularly after plans for Duterte to visit the area did not push through.

Duterte earlier said China asked him not to plant a flag there, as other claimant countries might follow.

Related: Duterte drops planned visit to Pag-asa Island

However, Manalo said that Duterte had other plans for Pag-asa Island, home to a civilian population and one of the biggest of the disputed Spratly Islands.

"[The President] in fact sent instructions that we should begin making improvements on the island for the population there," said Manalo.

Existing structures that he said should be improved include education and medical facilities and an airstrip.

"So the President has been quite clear on that, and I think that his main message there is that since that's part of Philippine territory, it's part of our responsibility to improve the living conditions of the Filipinos living there, and that's exactly what we will do," he said.