President Duterte is at last saying the words we need to hear from him regarding the conflict with China over parts of the South China Sea.
At his daughter’s party event in Davao City Friday, the President said: “You cannot create islands there and claim the sea. That is not an island, artificial islands are not true, are prohibited in the middle sea. That’s the rule there.”
These were Mr. Duterte’s words in reaction to China’s claim that the disputed Spratly Islands remain part of its territory.
While it says it respects other countries’ freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, China “has a right to take necessary steps to respond to foreign aircraft and ships that deliberately get close to or make incursions into the air and waters near China’s relevant islands, and provocative actions that threaten the security of Chinese personnel stationed there,” its foreign ministry said in a statement sent to Reuters.
This statement was, in turn, a reaction to President Duterte’s words earlier this week that China should temper its frequent warnings to planes and ships crossing the South China Sea. China had been sending radio warnings to US and Philippine planes, prompting Mr. Duterte to say: “You cannot create an island and you say that the air above the artificial island is your own. That is wrong. The right to innocent passage is guaranteed,” Duterte said.
We will ignore the remarks of Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano who tried to spin the exchange as a sign of a “closer relationship” between China and the Philippines.
We will, however, emphasize the manner real friends in good faith behave around each other. Friends respect boundaries and not bully each other. They do not capitalize on their existing advantages or exploit the weaknesses of another just to get their way.
Friends abide by established norms and do not disregard the opinion of arbitrators in the event of a dispute, just because these decisions are not favorable to them.
Mr. Duterte has been criticized for his apparent lack of interest in asserting our victory in the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which said China’s nine-dash line claim had no basis in law. He has declared his love for the Chinese leader and said the loans, aid and investment they give us are all too important. These recent statements, however, are more along our expectations of a leader who remains cordial with all our neighbors, who enters into partnerships for mutual benefit, but who knows where to draw the line when the country’s own interests are trampled on.
There is an adage that respect is earned and not demanded, but it’s an adage that has an exception. We should be clear and unequivocal about the way we expect to be treated—especially by those who purport to be our friends.