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Peace the only way to go, Rody tells China envoy

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President Rodrigo R. Duterte shakes hands with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua during the celebration of the National Heroes’ Day at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Taguig City on August 29. KING RODRIGUEZ/PPD

We’re your brothers, not your foes. President Duterte on Monday, August 29, conveyed this message to Beijing as he reiterated that any bilateral talks between China and the Philippines on their contrasting territorial claims over the West Philippine Sea should be guided by the ruling of the international arbitral court.

Mr. Duterte also urged China to consider the situation of poor Filipino fishermen who had been barred by Chinese coast guard from entering their traditional fishing grounds in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Speaking at the National Heroes’ Day celebration in Taguig City, the President said the Philippines was not ready to go into war with China, stressing that “peace is the only way” in resolving the two nations’ territorial dispute.

“I hope that you will treat us as your brothers, not your enemies. And take note of the plight of our citizens,” he said, directly addressing Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua who was among the guests at the ceremony.

“The Chinese people, this time, might find a place in their hearts for Filipinos. After all … there’s Chinese blood in me,” he continued. “(The Filipino fishermen) are there because they are poor.”

‘Dynamics’

Mr. Duterte also said he understood the “dynamics” of China’s political system but insisted that the judgment rendered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea, should be considered in any negotiation.

“But for now, Mr. Ambassador, I want to just talk to you for the moment. Maybe give us time to build our forces also. You have so much superiority,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

In July, the UN-backed tribunal ruled that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea and that it had breached Philippine sovereignty by endangering its ships and fishing and oil projects in the energy-rich waters.

China claims more than 90 percent of the South China Sea, an area which accounts for more than a tenth of global fisheries production and is also claimed in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

In an interview after the event, Zhao maintained that China would not honor the decision of the arbitral court, which also ruled that Beijing’s “nine-dash line” had “no legal basis.”

“Our position [is] that we cannot accept the arbitration award, but we do look forward to talk to the Philippines bilaterally over the topics that we have,” the ambassador told reporters.

 “Right now, we need to change our focus … from differences to common interests so that we can concentrate on cooperation that would benefit our two peoples,” he said.

‘Soft landing’

Asked if China would allow Filipino fishermen to enter the disputed waters now guarded by its Coast Guard, Zhao said: “I do not know the situation on the sea, [but] we are looking on the possibility.”

“We will talk diplomatic matters [that] contribute to the well-being of our two peoples. So don’t worry,” he added. “We are looking into the possibility [on] how we [should] handle it.”

In his speech, the President said the two countries should come together in looking for a “soft landing” in dealing with their territorial problem.

Silent for now

“I’ll keep silent [for] now … I will never bring the matter because it might lead only to the suspension of the talks with China and that is not good, Mr. Ambassador,” he told Zhao.

“I will not use the arbitral (ruling) now, but I would, one day, sit in front of your representative or you and then I will lay bare my position. And I would say that … ‘I cannot get out of the four corners of this … arbitral judgment,’”

Mr. Duterte said.

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