Analyst: SONA shows Duterte’s ‘moderate’ stance on West Philippine Sea dispute

By Kristine Daguno-Bersamina

duterte-sona-south-china-sea.jpg

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) before the joint session of the 17th Congress Monday, July 25, 2016 , at suburban Quezon city northeast of Manila, Philippines. Listening at left is Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel and House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. AP/Bullit Marquez

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) kept a “moderate” position on the West Philippine Sea, an analyst said.

The president only gave a short pronouncement on the arbitral tribunal’s historic ruling on the disputed seas in his 98-minute speech delivered on Monday.

“With regard to the West Philippine Sea otherwise known as [South] China Sea, we strongly affirm and respect the outcome of the case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration as an important contribution to the ongoing efforts to pursue the peaceful resolution and management of our disputes,” Duterte pointed out to a cheering audience that included Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua.

Duterte’s short statement on the issue was expected as Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. earlier called for restraint and sobriety despite the favorable arbitral tribunal ruling.

Dindo Manhit, president of the private think tank Stratbase ADR Institute, said in an online interview with Philstar.com that Duterte did not depart from his previous statements on the direction of the Philippines’s foreign policy.

“He (Duterte) has been outspoken about seeking cooperation with China instead of pursuing a more antagonistic line on the West Philippine Sea,” Manhit said.

The analyst, however, noted that it is still too early to say how the Philippines would benefit from a more cooperative stance.

“A great deal will depend on what exactly the president is willing to put on the table with China through his special envoy and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA),” said Manhit.

Former President Fidel Ramos has already accepted the offer of Duterte to be the government’s special envoy to China.

Ramos was tasked to initiate diplomatic talks in the wake of the landmark ruling against Beijing’s claim in the South China Sea.

“It remains to be seen, whether or not Duterte will use the ruling as the basis for future negotiations with China,” said Manhit.

“There are hints that Duterte is likely to put the ruling in the backburner in exchange of greater ‘benefits,’” he added, citing additional Chinese financial and infrastructural aid as one of those.

The Duterte administration might also seek for partnerships with other countries on defending territorial integrity and maritime rights, according to Manhit.

“He (Duterte) did say that he would continue the Philippines’s partnerships in security and maritime affairs with the country’s bilateral partners, specifically mentioning Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Manhit. “Perhaps he felt the need to reaffirm the importance of these partnerships to the country given the change in his tone on the relationship with China.”

The analyst believes the greater challenge for the president is to sustain the growing momentum of his radical agenda, which include “managing bilateral and multilateral relations with neighboring countries.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meanwhile reiterated at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that his government would only accept bilateral negotiations.

Originally posted on The Philippine Star

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