Common ground: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte unites predecessors to discuss South China Sea dispute

Philippines has adopted a more moderate stance on China under Duterte, who has courted closer economic and political ties with Beijing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 8:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 9:42pm

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday gathered four past presidents, most of whom have been politically at odds with one another, to discuss a unifying concern: their country’s territorial disputes with China.

Duterte convened the National Security Council mainly to discuss his government’s strategy in negotiating with China a resolution to the long-running South China Sea conflict, officials said.

Four ex-presidents attended the meeting at the Malacanang presidential palace: Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, in the most incumbent and former Filipino leaders to gather in one meeting in the Philippine republic’s history.

Inviting former presidents to the council’s meetings is traditional but the gathering was a rare show of unity among them.

South China Sea: conflicting claims explained

Arroyo helped oust Estrada in 2001, causing his downfall and eventual conviction on a plunder charge, but she granted him a pardon that allowed him to run again for public office. He’s now the mayor of Manila city.

Aquino worked to detain Arroyo on elections fraud charges in 2011 but she walked free last week from years of hospital detention after the Supreme Court cleared her of a plunder charge. Aquino also campaigned against Duterte, calling him a looming dictator during the campaign.

The five current and past presidents at one point posed for pictures.

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay on Wednesday said the Philippines had “vigorously” lobbied the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to take a united stance critical of Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea, but insisted Monday’s watered-down statement remained a victory.

The statement avoided mentioning this month’s ruling by a UN-backed tribunal in The Hague that Beijing’s claims to almost all of the strategic waterway had no legal basis, instead calling merely for “self-restraint”.

Asked at a news conference in Manila if he pushed for Asean to refer to the ruling, Yasay said: “Yes, vigorously”. However he said the statement was a “victory” for Asean, as it referred to upholding principles of international law.

I never said those things, all right? And please don’t put words into my mouth
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay

The Philippines, under Aquino’s administration, launched the legal challenge in 2013 against China’s claims to most of the sea. China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea, including waters approaching Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Efforts to forge a united Asean front on the issue have crumbled in recent years as China has successfully lobbied Cambodia and Laos, which are members of the bloc but Chinese allies.

The Philippines has also adopted a more moderate stance on China under Duterte, who has courted closer economic and political ties with Beijing since taking office on June 30.

Yasay initially said on Tuesday he had not asked Asean members to refer to the ruling in its end-of-meeting statement.

“No. Never, never did. Please don’t put words into my mouth,” Yasay told reporters in Vientiane when asked if he had called for a reference. “The other countries are not part of our filing of the case before the arbitral tribunal so why would we insist that it be put in the Asean statement?”

Back in Manila on Wednesday, Yasay denied making those comments. “I never said those things, all right? And please don’t put words into my mouth,” he told reporters.

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When asked to explain why Yasay denied lobbying, a foreign affairs spokesman said he was unable to clarify.

Adding to the confusion, Cambodia’s foreign ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said his nation had not vetoed Philippine efforts. He said Yasay withdrew his request for the tribunal mention, after discussions in which Cambodia made clear it wanted to remain “neutral”.

“The Filipino foreign minister himself decided to remove [it] and not to mention the ruling,” Chum Sounry said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse