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Talks on arbitral ruling? Later perhaps

AFTER telling the Chinese ambassador in Davao City that any bilateral talks between the Philippines and China will have to be based on the recent ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, President Duterte announced during the National Heroes Day rites at the Libingan ng mga Bayani last Monday that he will “keep silent” and avoid flaunting the arbitral court ruling for now.

This is probably the best position the Philippines can take at this time. China has declared it never recognized the court proceedings in the first place and it does not recognize the court ruling which was handed down last July 12.

The ruling basically upheld the Philippine position against China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea based on a nine-dash line drawn on a Chinese map of the region published in 1947. In its ruling, the court said:

“China violated Philippine sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, by constructing artificial islands, and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the economic zone.”

But China will have none of this decision. Thus, when former President Fidel V. Ramos, at the behest of President Duterte, went to Hong Kong early last month, he stressed he was going there to meet with friends, not with officials, perhaps play a round of golf. He did meet with some prominent Chinese citizens, nothing official at all, with only the goal of keeping friendly lines open between our two countries.

During the recent National Heroes Day ceremony, which was attended by members of the Diplomatic Corps, President Duterte appealed to the Chinese government to understand the plight of the Filipino fishermen who have been barred from their traditional fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, just 210 kilometers from the Zambales coast. He asked China to treat Filipinos as brothers, not enemies.

The Chinese ambassador, in an press interview later, responded in kind: “The Filipinos are always in the hearts of the Chinese people. We have been friends and partners and even relatives for over a thousand years. Despite the troubles we have, we are confident that the friendship will further be deepened and the cooperation will be further enhanced.”

Sometime in the future, the Philippines and China will have to talk about the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling. “But not now,” President Duterte said. “It’s not the right time to talk about it.”

That is indeed the best policy at this time. Later perhaps, when time has served to dissipate much of the bitterness brought about by the ruling, and newer and better developments have taken place in our bilateral relations, the ruling may be taken up in official talks for closer relations between our two countries.