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Hague ruling off Duterte’s agenda for China trip

Philippine President Rodrigo ­Duterte is not expected to raise an international tribunal ruling over the disputed South China Sea during his trip to Beijing next week, according to the head of a Chinese government-affiliated think tank who met Duterte’s special envoy in Hong Kong two months ago.

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the two sides were likely to issue a joint statement covering other issues in the disputed waters.

China’s foreign ministry confirmed on Wednesday that Duterte would meet President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during the visit on October 18-21.

“Xi and Duterte will discuss improving bilateral ties, deepening cooperation and international and regional issues of common concern,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

“China hopes the visit will help the two nations strengthen political trust, deepen cooperation, continue friendship, properly handle disputes, and put bilateral relations back on the right track of sound and stable development.”

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Wu, who met Duterte’s envoy and former Philippine president Fidel Ramos during a fence-mending trip in Hong Kong in ­August, told the South China Morning Post yesterday that ­Duterte’s visit was meant to put bilateral ties back on track after the fallout from the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in July that dismissed China’s claim to most of the disputed waters. The case was brought before the tribunal in The Hague by ­Manila.

“The Philippine side should be well aware before the visit that they need to set aside the South China Sea issue because it is obvious that they cannot come to China to raise the arbitration case,” Wu said.

“[Both sides] may reach some consensus on the South China Sea, including on cooperation, a crisis management mechanism and fisheries.

“There maybe a joint statement at the end of the visit, including on the South China Sea.”

Wu said that in return the Philippines would like to receive funding from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Chinese support to develop its outdated infrastructure, and be able to promote Philippine tourism and agricultural products.

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Duterte will be accompanied on the trip to China by a delegation of about 250 Philippine business executives, underscoring Manila’s desire to revive economic ties with Beijing, according to Reuters.

Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of international studies in Singapore, said that even if Duterte did not raise the tribunal ruling during his visit, it did not mean Manila was giving up its South China Sea claims.

“To a large extent, dropping the subject does not mean the Philippines will give up its sovereignty claim, but rather it’s a way of diluting the consequences of the South China Sea ruling and mending frayed ties with China,” Li said.

Analysts said Duterte’s visit was well timed to negotiate a bilateral crisis management mechanism to reduce risks at sea and discuss joint fishing farms in disputed waters near the Scarborough Shoal.

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“The mechanism would probably include routine meetings and a hotline respectively set up between the defence and foreign ministries, and discussion of ways to tackle unexpected encounters at sea, ” said Song Junying, a Southeast Asia affairs expert from the China Institute of International Studies.

Duterte’s Beijing visit comes as the Philippines is increasingly shifting its focus away from the United States.

“It is doubtful Duterte will scrap bilateral cooperation and the alliance with the US altogether, but he may be willing to recalibrate the parameters of existing cooperation as part of a grand bargain with China,” said Richard Heydarian, assistant professor of international affairs at De La Salle University in Manila.

Wu also said the Philippines-US alliance had been in place for decades and it was unlikely some rhetoric and a presidential trip to China would topple that.