Chinese media hails Duterte's South China Sea policy

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(From L-R) Senate President Tito Sotto, President Rodrigo Duterte, and House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano during the President's fourth State of the Nation Address on July 22 (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 24) — Drawing criticisms from his home country, President Rodrigo Duterte has earned the praises of the Chinese media for his policy of restraint on the South China Sea dispute.

A column published on Global Times, China's national English-language newspaper, commended Duterte's fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) for defending his controversial fishing agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Duterte in his speech stressed that his decisions on the sea row were meant to avoid any conflict in the West Philippine Sea, or the resource-rich area in the South China Sea that is the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. China claims the entire global waterway.

"Why did Duterte persist in acting in a peaceful, cooperative and restrained way in the South China Sea, despite some domestic criticism and US instigation? Because Duterte has realized that putting disputes aside and seeking cooperation with China brings most benefits to his country," columnist Li Qingqing wrote in the article published Tuesday, a day after Duterte delivered his SONA. The Global Times is under the People's Daily, official newspaper of the Communist Party of China.

The article cited the joint exploration in the South China Sea as among the Philippines' benefits from cooperating with China. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding joint oil and gas exploration in 2018, but critics warned it could compromise Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights.

"For the Philippines, a country that used to rely heavily on oil imports, such a joint development with China in the South China Sea not only eases Manila's pressure of imports, but also reduces its over-reliance on the international energy market. Such cooperation also improves the Philippines' energy structure and will greatly benefit the country in the long run. Instead of struggling with disputes, doesn't such win-win cooperation bring greater advantage to both sides?" the article read.

It urged other countries to follow the Philippines and China's "model for cooperation" in a bid to ease tensions in the contested waters.

"Some countries concerned, even countries outside the region, are very sensitive about China's movements in the South China Sea. These countries over-interpret China's decisions, accuse China of 'bullying,' and even sow dissension among countries in the region to benefit from it. But if these countries really hope for peace and stability in the South China Sea, they should focus on joint development rather than hyping the South China Sea issue and badmouthing China," the column read.

China has been at odds with the US, which does not lay claims to the South China Sea, but conducts freedom of navigation operations and points out China's alleged militarization in the area.

In the West Philippine Sea, China has built artifical islands, blocked Filipino fishermen from fishing, and interfered in petroleum exploration, as it rejects an arbitration ruling that invalidated its sweeping claim to the area.

The article stressed that China actually "continues to restrain itself."

"Otherwise, China could have already used coercive measures to take back all the islands illegally occupied by other countries," it said. It added that China has committed to participate in negotiations on a code of conduct, which will determine the acceptable behavior in disputed waters.

Maritime experts and government officials have denounced the President's establishment of friendlier ties with China despite the East Asian giant's incursions in the West Philippine Sea. Duterte's move to allow Chinese fishing in Recto Bank, an underwater feature within the country's exclusive economic zone, has been hit as a violation of the Constitution. Critics said Duterte cannot compromise the law of the land even if it is in exchange of Filipino fishermen finally being allowed entry again to Scarborough Shoal, an area that the Philippines lost to China after a standoff in 2012.

Section 7 of Article 12 says, "The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens."

But the Palace has said this provision is "subordinate" to the President's prime duty to protect Filipinos' lives. In his SONA, Duterte promised to stop China from fishing in the West Philippine Sea "in due time."

“The West Philippine Sea is ours. No ifs and buts,” Duterte said in his SONA. But he quickly added the government has to “temper” its actions “with the times and reality we face today," recalling how Xi warned him there would be "trouble" if the Philippines drills for oil in the West Philippine Sea.