ASEAN Summit: Philippines signals less antagonistic approach with China over maritime dispute

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (center) meets with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (left) on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos.

(CNN Philippines) — Although the South China Sea dispute has spawned harsh exchanges and an international arbitration case between Manila and Beijing over the past few years, Philippine officials signaled on Wednesday that cooler heads will prevail under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. 

In a press conference in Vientiane, Laos after this year's ASEAN-China Summit, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said that the President "wants a soft landing" in the settlement of the maritime row.

"In other words, he doesn't want to force issues. He knows that the arbitration ruling favors us. He is willing to buy his time to be able to talk at the appropriate moment," Abella explained.

This stance is in sharp contrast to Duterte's firm and sometimes profanity-laced rhetoric.

Over the past several months, he has called the U.N. a "son of a b****," joked about pulling the Philippines out of the international organization, and called the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines a "gay son of a b****." During Wednesday's press conference, Abella himself described the President's manner of speaking as "very colorful."

Read: Duterte takes swipe at U.N.

"We do have to understand the language and the context of the President. It's simply a way of saying how forceful he can be… It's a very colorful language," the spokesperson explained.

Abella added that he noticed the President's "capacity for statesmanship," even though the ASEAN Summit marks Duterte's debut on the international stage. He said that this ability of the president "is usually missed because of the noise regarding some of his statements."

"Observing him talk with the three [Singapore, Japan, and Vietnam] countries that he engaged with bilaterally, he was engaging the leaders in a very sophisticated political conversation." Abella added that the talks were "very fruitful."

Duterte calls for adherence to rule of law

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said Duterte expressed approval to  draft a framework leading to a code of conduct in the South China Sea. He said China and Singapore also support the idea. 

Apart from the Philippines and China,  Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan also have contesting claims in the South China Sea. 

Andanar said the South China Sea issue was voluntarily and individually raised by the different heads of state.

"They all had their own positions, but the most common position is to work on a mutual trust and confidence building and work on the common goals of the ASEAN," he said

According to Andanar, Duterte stressed during the ASEAN-China Summit that "international disputes should inspire us [ASEAN and China] to work in adherence to the rule of law and international governing bodies."

Last July, the Philippines won an international arbitration case against China's claims to virtually all of the South China Sea. A five-member Arbitral Tribunal upheld Manila's position that China's "nine-dash line" maritime claim is excessive and encroached into the Philippines' 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. China refused to accept the ruling  and did  not participate in the proceedings.

Related: PH wins maritime arbitration case vs. China

Abella said that the ruling "is the basis for the [Philippines']conversation" with China. However, Andanar pointed out that during the summit, ASEAN leaders made no categorical statements asking China to comply with the Arbitral Tribunal's ruling.

Hours before the summit, the Philippine Department of National Defense released pictures of Chinese ships near Scarborough Shoal, a disputed formation in the South China Sea. On Sunday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana expressed "grave concern" over the presence of Chinese vessels, including blue-colored barges, around the shoal.

However, he clarified that the government does not know if the barges will be used for dredging operations or construction in the area. 

The Chinese Embassy in Manila clarified on Wednesday that "The situation has not changed. There are no dredging or building activities there."

A break from the past?

The Duterte government's more cordial approach marks a change in tone from that of his predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III. In February 2014, Aquino compared China's activities in the disputed waters to the rise of Nazi Germany. He raised the same comparison a year later.

An editorial by state-run Chinese newspaper Global Times referred to the Philippines as the "cute little submissive" of the U.S. following the start of the 2015 Balikatan military exercises. In July that same year, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying labelled the Philippines as "the real trouble-maker and rule-breaker in the region."

Andanar said that there was a warm mood among the leaders during the ASEAN-China Summit.

"Everyone looked very serious but happy… Some of them were smiling while they were on stage holding hands and having their photo opportunity," he noted.

"No tension," he added.

According to Andanar, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that relations between ASEAN states and China are in a "positive direction."