Duterte To Obama In Historic Phone Chat: Hoping For Favorable U.N. Arbitration On South China Sea

Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte talked to United States President Barack Obama on Tuesday night, May 17, 2016, regarding the status of the South China Sea dispute.

During the 5-minute telephone conversation initiated by Obama at 11:15 p.m. to congratulate Duterte on his successful presidential bid, the Davao City mayor said he is hoping for a favorable result of the case filed by the Philippine government before the United Nations arbitral tribunal. Obama urged him to wait for the result of the arbitration.

The conversation of historical record was confirmed by Duterte’s Executive Assistant Christopher Lawrence Go, who described it as “a brief overseas call from the U.S. president,” according to Philippine Canadian Inquirer. On taking Obama’s call, Duterte said the following.

“I am very much honored Mr. President.”

Go said the mood of the conversation was relaxed with both leaders laughing at times.

Obama Duterte phone chat
According to Inquisitr, Duterte released a foreign policy statement to the press at the height of his campaign in April. It included the protocol he would follow as a president for peace in dealing with the South China Sea situation. Firstly, he would continue the Philippines’ appeal for arbitration with the United Nations. Secondly, he would willingly engage China in bilateral negotiations. Thirdly, if everything else fails to resolve the issue, he would take more assertive action to defend the sovereignty of the Philippines.

By the tone of what Duterte said to Obama, the Philippine president-elect is holding true to the foreign policy statement he made in the heat of his campaign. A GMA News report confirmed that during his conversation with Obama, Duterte reiterated his willingness to have bilateral talks with China over the South China Sea dispute if current efforts to resolve it fail to prosper.

Duterte explained to reporters that during the historic phone conversation Tuesday night, he assured Obama of the Philippines’ continuing alliance with the U.S. regarding disputes in the South China Sea.

Duterte also told the press that he is interested to know why the Scarborough Shoal was lost to China during rising tensions in 2012. For answers, pundits are now referring back to an old assertion by former National Security Adviser Jose T. Almonte pondering “could haves” and “would haves” long before the South China Sea became a matter of urgent concern for Obama.

Chinese submarine
Almonte, 81, director-general of the National Security Council in the cabinet of Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos whose term lasted from 1992 to 1998, called for installing lighthouses on the Scarborough Shoal to nip China’s advance in the bud. Some two decades before Duterte’s to-and-fro with Obama on the phone, Almonte felt the need to thwart a Chinese invasion. He allocated about P74 million for the “lighthouse” defensive measure. The Transportation and Communications Department with the aid of the military, was ready to commence installation. The plan was also advocated by Tony Carpio, the President’s legal counsel. According to Rappler, Almonte explained why the plan did not materialize.

“Apparently, our new foreign affairs secretary, Domingo “Jun” Siazon (Romulo quit after the Flor Contemplacion scandal), convinced Ramos to discontinue it because this would anger China. Tony and I learned that Jun was nurturing plans to vie for secretary-general of the U.N. and that China would be an important endorser. Much later, in 2000, news reports surfaced that Jun, whom President Estrada kept as foreign affairs secretary, was aiming to compete for the prized U.N. post after Kofi Annan’s term.”

According to NPR, Scarborough Shoal is little more than a bump in the South China Sea, but China is eyeing it for an air base even though the shoal is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (E.E.Z.) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It’s a volatile situation of concern not only to Duterte but also to Obama.

In 1995, long before Duterte talked to Obama, Almonte watched Chinese ships occupy the disputed territory called Mischief Reef, about 150 miles from the Philippine mainland. The Chinese put up their flag, an antenna and a couple of modest shacks, and issued a statement insisting the structures were for fishermen. Almonte did not buy the explanation because the “fishermen” were in Chinese naval uniforms.

Filipino and American troops
As the Philippines’ national security adviser at the time, Almonte was under no illusion the Mischief Reef takeover was a one-off. On hindsight, what he saw then has become obvious to Duterte and to Obama. That Almonte had a clear understanding of China’s designs on the South China Sea before they became a matter of concern for the United Nations, is shown by this quote in the Rappler report.

“I’ve said this often but it seems that only a few in the Philippine media and policy circles have picked it up: the South China Sea is the maritime heartland of Southeast Asia… If China controls the South China Sea, it will lead to its control of all the countries in the area: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and adjacent countries in the inland Southeast Asia, Laos, and Cambodia.”

Duterte has finally talked to Obama about it. Whatever the outcome of the U.N. tribunal’s deliberations, President-elect Duterte maintains that he will “do what is best for our country” in dealing with the South China Sea dilemma.

[Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images]