President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (right).

MANILA – The Philippines will maintain its “friendly” ties with China even after Beijing once again rejected Manila’s call to recognize the Hague-based arbitral court’s 2016 decision on South China Sea disputes, Malacañang said on Tuesday.

For now, President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration would not force China to acknowledge the arbitral ruling to boost the trade and economic cooperation between the two countries, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a virtual presser aired on state-run PTV-4.

“Isasantabi muna po natin ‘yung mga bagay na hindi mapagkasunduan, kasama na po itong territorial dispute na ito (We will temporarily set aside everything that [the Philippines and China] are in disagreement, including our territorial dispute),” Roque said.

He, however, clarified that the latest plan was not meant to abandon the Philippines’ historic South China Sea arbitration victory against China.

“Hinding-hindi po natin gagawin iyan (We will never do that) because the ruling was to our favor,” Roque said.

He made the remark after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Sunday called on China to adhere to the sea ruling, saying the arbitration award in favor of the Philippines is “non-negotiable.”

Locsin’s call came on the same day the Philippines marked the fourth anniversary of its historic win against China’s sweeping claims to most features of the resource-rich South China Sea.

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands ruled in favor of the Philippines’ petition when the court affirmed that China has no legal basis to assert its supposedly historic rights over nearly the entire South China Sea.

China rejected Locsin’s call on Monday, saying the decision favoring the Philippines is “illegal and invalid.”

Consistent’ in position

Roque said Beijing’s latest move would not be a reason to affect its improved ties with Manila under Duterte’s leadership.

“Itong disagreement nating ito ay hindi dahilan at hindi naman po ito ang suma total ng ating relasyon sa Tsina (This disagreement is no reason to sever ties with China. It is not the sum total of our relationship with China),” he said.

Roque also acknowledged that China, like the Philippines, is merely being “consistent” in its position with regards to the long-standing disputes in the South China Sea.

“I don’t think they are emboldened. They have been consistent in their position and so have we been. ‘Yun lang po ‘yun (That’s just it),” he said.

Advancing national interest

On Monday, United States (US) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected most of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Pompeo made the remarks as he stressed that the US’ stance is aligned with the 2016 arbitral ruling that sided with the Philippines against China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.

Roque assured that the Philippines, while keeping its mended ties with China, would continue to defend its national interests in the hotly contested waters.

“We will be sure that we will advance our national interest. And meanwhile, we want all parties involved to abide with the rule of law, particularly with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he said.

Apart from the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam are also laying claim to parts of the South China Sea.

Roque said the Philippines is looking forward to the conclusion of a final and binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to promote peace and stability in the busy waterway.

“Ang importante po ngayon, atupagin natin ‘yung pagbubuo at pagtutupad ng Code of Conduct nang maiwasan po yung tension sa lugar na iyan (What’s important now is to finalize the crafting and implementation of the Code of Conduct to avoid tensions in the disputed waters),” he said. (PNA)