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.
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.
“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.
“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]