PH likely to agree to bilateral talks with China despite expected favorable ruling from The Hague

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By Daniel Llanto | FilAm Star Correspondent

The Philippines is likely to take up China’s request to just put aside the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the maritime dispute over the West Philippine Sea, which is expected on July 12, and instead agree to resolve the issue through bilateral negotiations.

Beijing offered to start exclusive negotiations with Manila on the West Philippine Sea row in exchange for ignoring the long-awaited ruling of an arbitration court and widely expected to be favorable to the Philippines.

China’s official English-language newspaper China Daily, mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, reported that the proposed negotiation could cover “issues such as joint development and cooperation in scientific research if the new [Philippine] government puts the tribunal’s ruling aside before returning to the table for talks.”

President Duterte, meeting his Cabinet officially for the second time since assuming office recently, said the Philippines will have little practical use for even a ruling that is in its favor. “If we can have peace by just talking, I will be very happy,” the President stressed.

“Of course, it will be a moral victory and put that country (China) in an awkward position, but then again I said we have to go into reality in this world,” Duterte said.

Newly designated Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. echoed Duterte. “The Philippines will refrain from taking a strong position after the ruling is issued,” Yasay said, adding that a court decision in favor of the Philippines will not really commit a U.S. military response should China use armed force in the disputed area.

“We did a lot of many things — hardware and all — because we have to solve some of the problems that will involve violence,” he added, referring to a long-delayed military modernization drive kicked off by the Aquino administration that has seen delivery of two modern jet fighters so far as well as plans for missile frigates, surveillance planes and radar systems, among others.

Duterte described such defense buildup as wasteful, saying the funds would have been put to better use by beefing up internal security against extremists and other domestic threats. This was the inward-looking thrust of previous administrations that had been blamed for China’s unchallenged encroachment since the early 1990s on South China Sea areas claimed by the Philippines.

The Philippines brought the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and a ruling is expected on July 12. The case contests China’s claims to the bulk of the South China Sea, a body of water through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. China has said it plans to ignore the Court’s ruling which would represent a snub of the international legal order.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei have overlapping claims with China in the area. Beijing has rejected the arbitration case, claiming the court has no jurisdiction and saying it wants to solve the issue bilaterally.

In recent weeks China has ramped up its propaganda campaign downplaying the outcome of the case. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the two countries had agreed in 1995 to settle disputes in the South China Sea “in a peaceful and friendly manner through consultations on the basis of equity and mutual respect.”

China and the Philippines have held many rounds of talks on the proper management of maritime disputes, though there have been no negotiations designed to settle the actual disputes in the South China Sea, it said.

In the arbitration case, the Philippines is contesting China’s claim to an area shown on its maps as a nine-dash line stretching deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia, covering hundreds of disputed islands and reefs.

“Objectively, the tribunal has no jurisdiction over the dispute,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said. “Bilateral negotiation has been agreed upon as the way to resolve the dispute.”

Strategy analysts believe that China insists on taking up this matter bilaterally because it knows this will deprive the Philippines of help from the US and Japan, which have been consistent in their pledges of support to Manila.

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