PHL will still assert interests over WPS: Duterte

The Philippine government will not waver in defending the country’s interests over the disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS) amid renewed partnership with claimant state China, President Rodrigo Duterte said on Monday.

During his third State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte initially cited Manila’s “re-energized relations” with China that led to an unprecedented level of cooperation against transnational crimes.

Through this partnership, Duterte noted the discovery and dismantling of shabu laboratories in the country and the arrest of Chinese chemists linked to a drug syndicate.

Despite this, he said the country remains firm in its position over the South China Sea.

“Our improved relationship with China does not mean that we will waver in our commitment to defend our interest in the West Philippine Sea,” Duterte said, adding this reflects in Manila’s continued engagement with the Asian giant through multilateral and bilateral channels.

In 2017, the government launched the first bilateral consultative mechanism in South China Sea (BCM) with Beijing, where all issues concerning the contested area were discussed in a “frank, in-depth, and friendly manner.”

The Philippines, together with several Southeast Asian countries, also engaged China towards the drafting of the framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) during its chairmanship to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2017.

These efforts paved the way for an opportunity to manage the dispute without further escalating tensions in the strategic waters, Duterte said.

“Opening lines of communication and amicably managing differences have led to positive developments that include renewed access of Filipino fishermen in the areas of dispute in the Philippines’ West Philippine Sea.”

In an assessment, think tank Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI) praised the administration’s way of handling the maritime row, which it said “contributed to regional stability.”

“Ongoing disagreements with China are now discussed in the highest-levels and more channels for functional cooperation have been opened and are already delivering benefits for the Filipinos including our fishermen and farmers,” it said. PNA