Aquino: Duterte a ‘patriot,’ likely to keep PH stand on China row

MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III believes his successor will maintain the current government policy on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute even if President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncements seem to suggest otherwise.

Aquino made the statement in an exclusive Rappler interview on Tuesday, June 7. Rappler CEO Maria Ressa asked him about his thoughts on the position taken by the incoming president on dealing with China, which departs from the existing state policy.

“I do believe he’s a patriot. I think he’s a no-nonsense guy. Once he gets all the facts, then I think he will come to the same conclusion,” the President said.

During the campaign, Duterte gave statements on the West Philippine Sea issue that were contrary to the Aquino administration’s position, such as joint exploration with China in the disputed area if the Philippines’ arbitration case with that country before a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunals takes too long.

Duterte had also said that he would consider bilateral discussions with China – the regional giant’s preferred mode of negotiations – on the issue, and that the Philippines should “not insist on ownership,” again, if there is no progress on the arbitration case. (READ: China blasts 'unilateral' Philippine move ahead of ruling)  

The incoming foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay Jr, has also spoken about pursuing bilateral negotiations with China on the sea row, which drew praise from Beijing. (READ: China to Duterte admin: Return to dialogue)

Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier congratulated Duterte for his victory and expressed hope that their countries would "get bilateral relations back on the track of sound development." Duterte, for his part, had described Xi as a "great president."

Different conclusion?

Aquino said, however, that once Duterte assumes the presidency, he will see the situation from a broader perspective given his access to more information. (READ: China and next PH president: Tough to push the reset button)

“He will be privy to everything that I am privy to now….Let’s see if he comes to a different conclusion,” Aquino said.

It was one of the few questions on Duterte that Aquino responded to during the interview. The President said he did not want to sound like he was giving "unsolicited advice" to the incoming chief executive. (READ: Aquino on Duterte's win: 'Very masterful way of campaigning')

In an interview with the New York Times in late May, Aquino said he expects Duterte to "adjust to the realities of governance" once he formally asumes the presidency. 

"Undoubtedly, he [Duterte] has begun to recognize that certain rhetoric that was allowed in the campaign might not be allowed in governance. He will adjust to the realities of governance," Aquino told the New York Times.

On the campaign trail, Duterte made headlines with his sensational statements on killing criminals, a rape joke involving a slain Australian missionary, and expletive-rich insults to his fellow rivals as well as the Catholic church. 

Duterte has not sanitized his public statements even after he was proclaimed winner of the presidential election. He had also been called out for displaying inappropriate – even unlawful – behavior during a press conference when he catcalled a female journalist while she was asking a question.

The president-elect had said, however, that he would be "prim and proper" once he is sworn in as president. –