Clearer Duterte policy on sea dispute awaited — experts
The Philippines has been on the frontline in asserting the rule of law and the passage of an Asean-China Code of Conduct in the South China Sea under outgoing President Aquino. Now, other Spratlys claimants and interested parties like the United States and Japan are waiting for more “clarity” from President-elect Rodrigo Duterte about his position on the maritime row.
“On the campaign trail, he made statements that seemed to run counter to the established policy of the Aquino administration and made outside observers nervous,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), told the INQUIRER over the weekend.
On the other hand, Duterte “also made statements that were strongly nationalistic and pragmatic about the role of the US alliance, EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement), etc.,” Poling noted.
Amid the seemingly conflicting statements, Poling said, “Other claimants and interested parties like the US and Japan are waiting for more clarity” on Duterte’s policies.
Poling, who is set to hold a forum on EDCA in Manila on Tuesday, said he saw nothing wrong with Duterte having a bilateral engagement with China to resolve the maritime row.
“As long as he doesn’t seek to cut a deal that would leave other claimants out in the cold—and he hasn’t made any statements suggesting he would,” Poling said.
But Poling said Aquino tried to engage China bilaterally earlier in his administration “and learned a hard lesson— that Beijing was not willing to negotiate fairly.”
“Mr. Duterte might come to the same conclusion after attempting negotiations,” Poling said.
The AMTI director added that it was obvious that Duterte “is clearly more skeptical of the US to really go to the mat for the Philippines, and that affects his decision-making.”
“But the US response should be to seek to reassure him that our treaty commitment is reliable, which was why President Obama was the first head of state to call and congratulate him on his win,” Poling said.
For his part, Chester Cabalza of the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP) warned in a separate interview that a sudden shift by Duterte in policies could “taint the credibility of the Philippines before its neighbors.”
“We have been in the frontline and we tried to influence our neighbors to join us in the strategy on how to deal with the maritime row, and then we would suddenly shift policies? That would impact on the credibility of the Philippines. We gained moral ascendancy after we sued a giant neighbor then we’ll do a drastic change?” Cabalza said.
Cabalza said the incoming administration should engage in thorough consultation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the claimant countries, and even the outgoing Aquino administration.
“We need to listen to our neighbors. We are pursuing Asean centrality and our neighbors are relying on us. We have to assess the security environment and weigh the best option,” Cabalza said.
Even as he received an official from the Chinese embassy on Thursday, Duterte said that he did not talk to China about the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China.
He said he was waiting for the decision of the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on the Philippines petition against China before he “confirms” his policy on the maritime row.
The court is expected to hand down its decision this month./rga
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