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Philippines’ Duterte says talks with China on sea dispute ‘within the year’

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Tuesday he expects talks with China on their South China Sea dispute within a year and he would not raise an international ruling rejecting China’s claims there when he attends a regional summit next month.

An arbitration court in the Hague infuriated China in July when it ruled that China had no historical title over the South China Sea and it had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights with various actions there.

Raising the issue at a summit in Laos of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, together with its “dialogue partners” including China, the United States and Japan, would inevitably compound China’s anger.

Duterte, speaking to reporters at the presidential palace in Manila, said it was “better to continually engage China in a diplomatic dialogue rather than anger officials there”.

Asked about a date for bilateral talks, he said: “Within the year.”

The United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines that has been concerned about China’s pursuit of territory in the South China Sea, said it welcomed efforts by rival claimants to manage and resolve differences peacefully.

At the same time, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, Anna Richey-Allen, said Washington “urge(d) that negotiation should be undertaken on terms acceptable to all parties, free from coercion or the use or threat of force.”

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Washington was a strong backer of the case the Philippines brought against China, but has sought unsuccessfully to forge a unified position among Southeast Asia countries on the issue.

Richey-Allen did not comment on Duterte’s comment that he would not raise the issue at September 6-8 Laos summit, which US President Barack Obama is due to attend.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion worth of sea-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims to parts of the sea.

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Duterte said the Philippines had no intention of raising the arbitration ruling during the summit, although he added: “If somebody dwells on it, we will discuss, but for the Philippines, we have talks.”

If formal negotiations with China were to fall through, “where do we go?” he asked.

A former Philippine president, Fidel Ramos, travelled to Hong Kong this month in an effort to rekindle damaged ties with Beijing.

While there, Ramos said the Philippines wanted talks with China to explore a path to peace and cooperation.

Duterte said his government wanted to talk to China so Philippine fishermen could return to the disputed Scarborough Shoal fishing ground.

In 2012, China seized the shoal, denying Philippine fishermen access and prompting Manila to file the arbitration case.

China has ignored the court’s ruling that none of its claims in the Spratly Islands entitled it to a 200-mile (320 km) exclusive economic zone. Its construction work on reefs there has alarmed other claimants, as well the United States and Japan.

China says its aims are peaceful and it has the right to do what it wants on its territory.