MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte's statement on the presence of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea counts as invoking the 2016 arbitral ruling on the disputed waterway, the Palace said.
Malacañang insisted that the Duterte administration "never shelved" the arbitral award that invalidated China's historic claims over the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea. The government has, however, played down the ruling in favor of seeking warmer ties with China.
The president earlier warned China to lay off Manila-controlled Pag-asa Island as Filipino soldiers are stationed there.
"When he said, 'Do not touch our property. If you do any harm to our soldiers, we will respond in kind that effectively' has already made a strong assertion of sovereignty and statement relative to the to the arbitral ruling," presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Monday.
The president did not mention the ruling in an April 4 speech where he said China should "lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there."
According to an official transcript of his remarks, the president said:
"No, I’m trying to tell China, ‘yung Pag-asa is ours. We have been there
1974. Kung inyo ‘yan, bakit hindi ninyo pinaalis kami? So let us be friends
but do not touch Pag-asa Island and the rest. Otherwise — otherwise things
would be different.
I am not — this is not a warning, this is just a word of advice to my friends
kasi kaibigan tayo ng China. So I — nakikiusap ako. I will not plead or beg,
but I’m just telling you that layoff the Pag-asa because may mga sundalo
Panelo: Ruling is unenforceable
Claiming that the Duterte administration never changed its position on the arbitral ruling, Panelo earlier said that the award was only unenforceable as the international tribunal does not have an enforcing mechanism.
The Philippines does not also have the "capability of enforcing it alone by force, not to mention the fact that performing armed acts of enforcement could only trigger a bloody war," according to Panelo.
This statement was released in response to former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario who called on the government to enforce the arbitral ruling.
"It might be the right time to add to 'unshelve' our arbiral outcome and sit down with China for the enforcement," Del Rosario told radio dzMM last Saturday.
Asked if President Duterte would bring up the arbitration with Chinese President Xi Jinping when they meet later this month, Panelo said it would depend the president.
"Usually in a bilateral meeting, the host makes an opening statement and in that opening statement the host can raise whatever issue he wants. And then the invited visiting host responds. In that response, he can raise an issue he wants," Panelo said.
On the issue of the presence of hundreds of Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island, Malacañang said the Philippine government expects them to respond "whatever response they want."
"Then we will wait for the president's decision. That's his call," Panelo said when asked if Beijin refuses to pull out their vessels in Philippine waters.
Duterte will fly to Beijing this month to attend the second Belt and Road Forum. He is expected to hold a bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart at the sidelines of the event.
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