Duterte will raise arbitral ruling 'maybe once' in his term

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This article was updated on November 15 to include comments from political analysts Dennis Coronacion and Jay Batongbacal.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 15) — President Rodrigo Duterte will raise the arbitral tribunal ruling on the disputed islands to China "maybe once" during his term, he said on Tuesday.

"I told China that I have to confront China on the arbitral ruling. Once, maybe, during my term. But as of now, we are not ready to fight," Duterte said.

The President was speaking to the press after the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit closing ceremony.

The statement comes after Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China announced on Monday the beginning of negotiations for a code of conduct in South China Sea. It also comes ahead of the release of the Chairman's statement, a document where President Duterte, as chairman of the ASEAN 2017, was expected to comment on the maritime row.

Duterte has said the country — or any nation — cannot afford go to war with the threat of a nuclear attack from North Korea.

"We cannot fight, start a war — and with the North Korea crisis looming ahead... Nobody has that luxury," he said.

North Korea has fired 22 missiles since February, as it brandishes a rapidly-progressing nuclear program that has alarmed world leaders. The President has expressed concern a "nuclear holocaust" would turn the Philippines, a relative non-player in the issue, into an arid region.

However, maritime expert and UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea Director Jay Batongbacal, says raising the ruling need not mean invoking war with China.

"War is not the only option. There were a range of other possible things he could have done, especially with respect to the arbitral ruling," said Batongbacal.

"He could have also exacted more concessions than what he has gotten so far... We still do not have any written assurances, for example," he added.

Under Duterte's administration, relations between the Philippines and China have warmed.

After China refused to acknowledge the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision which favored the Philippines' claim over the islands, the President has put the ruling in the back burner. His softer stance towards the dispute has drawn flak from critics seeking more vocal government objection towards Chinese presence in contested waters.

Batongbacal called the diplomatic approach with China "theatrics," adding that the eastern giant continues to build on the disputed islands and patrol the area.

"This is all to present an atmosphere of stability, cordiality, and friendliness about the issue. Actually, not much has changed on the ground," he said.

On the other hand, University of Sto. Tomas Political Science Chair Dennis Coronacion believes the talks should not be easily dismissed.

"We have to take note of the fact that if we backtrack a bit, China wouldn't want to talk to any of the parties at the multilateral setting. I consider this as a major achievement even though these are just preliminaries," said Coronacion.

"We are hoping that once this has gained momentum, the situation on the ground will become better," he added.

Duterte also explained talking to China would solve only one aspect of the maritime row.

He said the arbitral tribunal ruling, which invalidates Chinas nine-dash line boundary claiming roughly 85 percent of the South China Sea, only applies to China and the Philippines, and not to territories claimed by countries in the south.

Six countries have overlapping claims in areas of the South China Sea. Four of these countries — Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam — are members of the ASEAN.

"Hindi natin matapos kung sabihin mo puntahan mo 'yung China, give them a copy of the arbitral ruling. It does not end there," Duterte said.

He said it would be better for all claimants to agree on a code that can govern behavior in disputed parts of the sea amid the maritime row.

Like the Philippines, China does not want lives lost over the dispute and has promised to expedite the adoption of a Code of Conduct, he said.

"I said, 'Let it be. We'll just observe certain norms of conduct and we were pressing China to set a date.' And China said, 'Do not just hurry up. But we will consider really fast tracking this Code of Conduct,'" said Duterte, quoting a Chinese official he said he'd spoken to.

China and ASEAN countries on Monday agreed to begin negotiations for the Code of Conduct. The code will set the rules of behavior in the contested waters even as the overlapping sovereignty issues remain unresolved.