Duterte gov’t still setting aside arbitral ruling, Palace says

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 24) — There will be no follow-through to President Rodrigo Duterte’s widely praised affirmation of the country’s arbitral victory against Beijing over the South China Sea.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque even refuses to call Duterte’s latest statements on the sea row as “strong,” saying the President merely reiterated existing government policies before the 193-member United Nations General Assembly.

“It’s a restatement of what has been the Philippine policy on China na hindi natin pwedeng balewalain ang panalo natin sa (that we cannot neglect our win at the) Hague,” Roque said in an online media briefing on Thursday, a day after Duterte appeared at the UNGA for the first time in his four-year presidency.

In his speech, Duterte said the arbitral ruling – which recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to areas within its exclusive economic zone that China contests – is now part of international law and cannot be diluted, diminished, or abandoned.

Several officials and foreign policy experts have commended Duterte for asserting the country's rights over the West Philippine Sea, with former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario saying the next step is for the administration to put in reality the invocation of the arbitral award and to get the support of more countries so the ruling will be raised more emphatically in next year's UNGA.

READ: Duterte lauded for sea row stance, urged to turn PH arbitral victory into reality

The 2016 landmark decision of an international tribunal in The Hague also invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claim to almost the entire South China Sea. It ruled that China violated Philippine rights to some areas by interfering in fishing and petroleum exploration and building artificial islands there.

China rejects the ruling, while the Duterte administration “agreed to disagree” to pursue cooperation with the East Asian giant.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, President Duterte finally heeded experts’ calls to raise the arbitral ruling at the UNGA. But this does not mean the decision has been taken off the shelf in terms of its dealings with China.

“The President has been consistent. We will move on matters that we could move forward on, including trade and investments, and we will for the time being, set this aside because I don’t think the resolution of the territorial dispute is forthcoming in our lifetime,” Roque said.

"So hayaan muna po natin ‘yan, basta nandyan ang desisyon diyan. Malinaw kung ano ang nakasaad sa international law." 

The Palace believes Duterte’s speech at the UNGA will not affect the country’s close ties with China.

Wala naman pong magbabago doon sa ating mga polisiya lalong lalo na doon sa ating bilateral relations with China (There will be no changes to our policy most especially with our bilateral relations with China,” Roque said. For instance, the Philippines will still not follow the US' call to quit doing business with blacklisted Chinese firms involved in illegal activities in the South China Sea.

As for Duterte’s remark that the Philippines rejects attempts to undermine the country’s arbitration win, Roque explained it only means there’s nothing China can do to overturn the ruling.

Ang tinutukoy po diyan ng ating Presidente, kahit anong physical military occupation nila sa mga isla na ang sabi naman ng tribunal ay kabahagi ng ating EEZ, will never ripen into a valid legal title,” he said.

[Translation: What the President meant was, whatever physical military occupation in islands that the tribunal said are part of our EEZ will never ripen into a valid legal title.]

Roque also maintained that the Philippines stands to lose if the issue is put to a vote at the next UNGA. This has been the stance of the Duterte administration despite the latest move of major European powers to back the country's arbitration win.

READ: PH stands pat on setting aside arbitration win as other nations reject Beijing’s South China Sea claim