Duterte: Both PH and China cannot afford to go to war

Davao City (CNN Philippines, May 16) — Despite his third warm encounter in six months with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday it is not yet time to discuss the arbitral ruling over the South China Sea dispute.

"The safety measure is that we avoid trouble. We avoid violence and we avoid war because frankly, we cannot afford it, and China cannot afford it also at this time. Masisira tayong dalawa (Both of us will be destroyed)," Duterte said in remarks upon his arrival here from Beijing.

On July 12, 2016, a United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration nullified China's so-called "nine-dash line" claiming jurisdiction over the entire South China Sea and awarded the Philippines' exclusive sovereign rights in the area known as the West Philippine Sea. The landmark ruling was among the highlights of tense bilateral relations between the Philippines and China under former President Benigno Aquino III.

But since Duterte assumed office in July 2016, relations between China and the Philippines have been warm. Xi and Duterte first met during the latter's state visit to China in October 2016. They met again a month later during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders' Meeting in Peru.

In April, Duterte said it would be "suicide" for the Philippines to engage in battle with China, adding the United States, a longtime Philippine ally, is the only country that can tell China to stop activities in the disputed waters.

"The rationale behind it is really, China would want a peaceful region. Because a peaceful region translates into more prosperity for China," Duterte said here.

The President came from a six-day visit to Cambodia, Hong Kong, and China, where he met with Xi for the third time on the sidelines of the "Belt and Road Forum."

Duterte cited China's generosity to the Philippines. China has pledged 24 billion dollars worth of investments, including huge infrastructure projects such as two bridges spanning the Pasig River in Metro Manila, and a railway project in Mindanao.

President Duterte added his meetings with Xi and Premier Li Keqiang focused on ensuring that deals made during his visit to China last year will move forward.

"President Xi Jinping, and we decided that there's a time to raise … the arbitral ruling but it is not now," Duterte said in the press briefing. 

"We have to have an agenda, the structure of the meeting, and the way how to present the case to them first because...we agreed to talk, to have a dialogue," he added.

Philippine ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana said on May 13 it is Duterte's dual-track strategy not to raise the arbitral ruling during his China visit.

Sta. Romana added it does not mean the government is giving up its claims to the South China Sea.

Related: PH envoy to China: Not raising arbitral ruling is gov't strategy

The President also expressed openness to embark on joint explorations with China in disputed areas saying such deals, if government decides to enter them, will have to be fair and deliver something to benefit Filipinos.

The Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing is a China-led initiative that hopes to strengthen international cooperation for development. It was attended by 28 heads of state and government leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There, Duterte presented his administration's economic and social development blueprint for the Philippines tagged as "Dutertenomics," and highlighted his 8-trillion-peso (US$160-billion)"Build Build Build" program and invited prospective investors to take part in the ambitious infrastructure plan.

With many infrastructure projects in the pipeline, the President minced no words in reminding Philippine courts not to give the government a hard time in implementing these projects which are sometimes delayed by restraining orders.

"Do not decide for us kasi kami naghanap ng pera, kami rin papatakbo ng proyekto. Tapos kayo diyan mag-TRO-TRO knowing very well that it is a corrupt practice," Duterte said, referring to temporary restraining orders being sought on some government projects. "I am asking the Supreme Court to do something about it... I will have to traverse the lines of separations of powers," he added.

Before the forum in Beijing, Duterte was in Phnom Penh where he delivered a speech as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the World Economic Forum on ASEAN, then to Hong Kong where he held an informal meeting with thousands of overseas Filipino workers.

CNN Philippines' Ina Andolong contributed to this report.