China Congratulates Philippines’ New President

By Shannon Tiezzi / July 1, 2016 /The Diplomat

The Philippines swore in Rodrigo Duterte as its sixteenth president on June 30. Despite (or perhaps because of) rocky ties under previous President Benigno Aquino, the Chinese government wasted no time offering its congratulations to the new leader in Manila.

Xinhua reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message of congratulations on Thursday, saying that “he is willing to work with Duterte to push for improvement of relations between their two countries.” The Chinese leader purposefully avoided mentioning the strained ties over the past four years, resulting from heated disputes over features in the South China Sea. Instead, Xi went on to praise the “good-neighborliness and friendship” that he described as an “historical inheritance for the thousands-year-long history of China-Philippine relations.”

Xi added that “China and the Philippines face important opportunities in the development of bilateral relations.”

Since Duterte was elected on May 9, China has been holding out hope that the new administration would drop Aquino’s hardline stance on maritime disputes in the South China Sea. After the results of the Philippine presidential election were announced, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said, “We hope that the new government of the Philippines can work with us towards the same direction, properly deal with relevant disputes, and bring bilateral relations back to the track of sound development with concrete actions.”

Most importantly, China wants Manila to drop the arbitration case over the South China Sea disputes brought by the Aquino administration. The case, submitted to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in January 2013, challenges China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea, as well as claiming that Beijing has violated Manila’s maritime rights within its exclusive economic zone. China has refused to participate in the case, arguing that the tribunal does not have jurisdiction. Beijing also holds that the arbitration is invalid (even illegal) because the Philippines filed it in violation of previous agreements to resolve disputes through bilateral negotiations. The PCA tribunal has rejected both those arguments.

A final ruling is expected on July 12, 2016; in preparation, China has issued a slew of media articles and official statements slamming the arbitration case. In the same press conference on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei first conveyed Xi’s message of congratulation to Duterte before offering a harangue on the arbitration case:

The unilateral initiation of arbitration by the Aquino administration breaches international law, goes back on the agreement between China and the Philippines on resolving relevant disputes in the South China Sea through bilateral negotiation as well as its own commitment in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea about resolving disputes through dialogue and negotiation by countries directly concerned, and abuses the international arbitration regime.

It’s interesting, however, that Beijing has shifted its rhetoric from denouncing “the Philippines” in general to holding “the Aquino administration” responsible. That leaves the door open for potential reconciliation now that Aquino is gone – providing, of course, that Duterte is willing to play by Beijing’s rules and disavow — or at least downplay — the case. Read more

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