MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines’ top diplomat said Tuesday he had rejected a Chinese offer to hold talks “outside of and in disregard” of an international tribunal’s ruling last week that debunked Beijing’s claim to ownership of virtually the entire South China Sea.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said he told his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, that China’s condition “was not consistent with our constitution and our national interest,” adding Wang warned that if the Philippines insists on China’s compliance to the decision, “we might be headed for a confrontation.”
During talks on the sidelines of last weekend’s Asia-Europe meeting in Mongolia, Yasay said Wang insisted that the Philippines should not even “make any comments” on the landmark decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Wang “asked us also to open ourselves for bilateral negotiations but outside of and in disregard of the arbitral ruling, so this is something that I told him was not consistent with our constitution and our national interest,” Yasay told the ABS-CBN network.
“They said that if you will insist on the ruling and discussing it along those lines, then we might be headed for a confrontation,” he said.
Despite the seeming impasse, Yasay said he was still hopeful both countries can find a way to resolve the long-seething dispute, suggesting China’s publicly issued positions may still change.
Yasay said he asked that Filipinos be allowed to fish in the Scarborough Shoal, where Chinese coast guard ships have blocked and turned away fishing boats since effectively seizing the disputed fishing area after a tense standoff with Philippine government ships in 2012.
Wang responded by saying China was open to discussing that possibility with the Philippines “but not in the context of the arbitral tribunal ruling,” Yasay said.
Two days after the tribunal issued its ruling, Chinese coast guard ships again blocked Filipino fishermen from approaching the shoal in scenes documented by an ABS-CBN news crew.
The Philippines decided to take its dispute with China to international arbitration in 2013 after China took control of Scarborough Shoal and reneged on a U.S. State Department-brokered deal for both countries to withdraw their ships from the area to ease a dangerous faceoff, according to former President Benigno Aquino III, who brought the case against Beijing.
With the Philippines’ anemic military dwarfed by China’s forces, Aquino bolstered relations with the United States and other allies to deter China’s increasingly assertive actions in the disputed waters and modernize its air force and naval fleets, further straining ties with Beijing.
Rodrigo Duterte, who took over as president last month, has been seen as more conciliatory toward China and critical of U.S. security policies, saying during an election campaign that he would be willing to “shut up” on the disputes if China would finance railway projects in his impoverished country.
When the tribunal issued its decision, Duterte’s government purposely avoided any high-profile celebration to avoid antagonizing China, which refused to take part in the process and declared the tribunal’s ruling “null and void.”
The ruling, which was welcomed by the U.S. and other countries, invalidated China’s sprawling territorial claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, regarded as the constitution governing the use of the world’s oceans. It said that China violated the 1982 maritime treaty by building up artificial islands in the South China Sea that destroyed coral reefs and by disrupting Philippine fishing and oil exploration.
Yasay took an assertive tone Tuesday.
“Let me say that the arbitral tribunal had really debunked in no unmistakable terms the position of China in so far as the nine-dash line is concerned,” Yasay said, referring to Beijing’s expansive sea claims demarcated by dashes on its maps.