Duterte in China, expected to raise territorial claims
Beijing: Visiting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte held talks Thursday with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in which the Southeast Asian leader was expected to discuss a ruling on the disputed South China Sea.
The 2016 Hague arbitration ruling mostly invalidated China's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea and found that it violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The row over the waters a major global shipping route thought to be rich in oil and gas reserves has for years marred China's relationship with the Philippines and other neighboring countries with rival territorial claims. Beijing has transformed a string of disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases.
Duterte, however, has largely avoided the subject in favor of seeking warmer ties with Beijing. Philippine nationalists and left-wing groups have criticized the president for not demanding Chinese compliance with the arbitration ruling, which came the same year Duterte took office.
Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago "Chito" Santa Romana told reporters Thursday that Duterte has mentioned the ruling to Xi several times, but not in a direct discussion as he planned to do this meeting.
Duterte "has exerted a lot of diplomatic capital to build a reservoir of goodwill and friendship with President Xi," Santa Romana said.
"So he has decided that it's time to include in the diplomatic agenda and in the discussions sensitive issues that may have caused misunderstanding if it were brought up in the past."
Santa Romana added that Duterte is in Beijing "to build bridges, not to burn bridges with China."
It's unlikely that Duterte's move will have any effect on China, said Jay Batongbacal, a maritime affairs scholar at the University of the Philippines.
"China's position will not change just because Duterte changes tune," Batongbacal said. "At best, Duterte might be seen as using the arbitration discussion as a move to leverage other concessions. At worst, it may be just for show."
At the start of Thursday's meeting, Xi said he was
willing to work with Duterte to "grasp the current situation" from a long-term, strategic perspective.
"This will not only benefit our two countries and our peoples, but also will provide positive energy to the region," Xi said.
Neither leader mentioned the South China Sea in their introductory remarks in the presence of reporters.