Duterte: 'Let time heal' West Philippine Sea dispute with China

MANILA, Philippines – Downplaying the likelihood of the Philippines asserting its rights in the West Philippine Sea during this administration, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would instead leave it up to time and economic cooperation when dealing with China's expansive claims in the maritime area.

"We might as well just be friendly, improve our commerce, and let time heal. Tomorrow will take care of itself, (that's) one thing for sure and like any other historical claim, the world is always changing and we did not really do it at the expense of the lives of Filipinos," Duterte said in an interview with Russian news outlet RT News that aired on Friday, January 24.

Before making the statement, Duterte again refused to take an aggressive stand similar to other Southeast Asian countires such as Vietnam when asserting the country's rights in the West Philippine Sea.

Like the Philippines, Vietnam is a claimant state in the South China Sea and actively defends its waters against China's aggressive tactics to claim the entire maritime area. (READ: [ANALYSIS] Will Vietnam take China to court?)

In declining to take a similar approach to Vietnam, Duterte stuck to the line that asserting the Philippines' rights in the West Philippine Sea would only make China declare war. It's a false option that experts such as retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio – a staunch defender of the West Philippine Sea – have refuted, saying Duterte's insistence on such is a "hollow attempt to scare our people into submission to China."

Carpio, who played a pivotal role in securing the Philippines' victory against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, earlier said Duterte's projection of war "shows a dismal lack of understanding of international law and international relations."

The Philippines and China have engaged in talks on the sea dispute since May 2017, though critics and maritime experts have pointed out that these have not stopped China's militarization in the South China Sea; the buildup of artificial islands in Philippine waters; and aggressive tactics against fishermen, among others.

Duterte has likewise been criticized for downplaying the Philippines' decades-long sea dispute in exchange for loans and grants from Beijing.

Seeking new friends. Duterte was also asked why he sought for a change in the Philippines' foreign policy characterized by turning away from traditional allies such as the United States to countries like Russia and China instead.

Duterte said there was nothing to it except that Russia and China "respected" other countries' sovereignty. He placed the two countries against the US, whom he believed still viewed the Philippines as a vassal state.

"If I cannot get a credible posture from the Americans, I can get it from the Russians and the Chinese government. It's because they respect the sovereignty of a country which America is totally, totally lacking," he said.

Duterte has frequently expressed his dislike for the United States, particularly under the administration of former president Barack Obama, who was critical of his war on drugs. Even with the assumption of US President Donald Trump, who he described as a "very nice person," Duterte repeatedly lashed out at America for "interfering" in the Philippines' affairs.

The latest escalation of his tirades against the US saw Duterte renew threats to scrap the Philippines-US long-standing visiting forces agreement, which outlined guidelines for the conduct of American troops visiting the Philippines.

He also threatened to deny entry to more US senators who approved a measure seeking sanctions against Philippine officials involved in extrajudicial killings and the detention of Senator Leila de Lima. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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