MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine president acknowledged Sunday that he can be impeached if he concedes his country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea in talks with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders this week in Beijing.
President Rodrigo Duterte said in a speech before leaving for Brunei and China that while he will not bargain the Philippines’ territorial claims, “there will be no hard impositions” as he tries to renew his nation’s strained friendship with China and intensify two-way trade and investment.
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who has done extensive studies on the territorial conflict, warned last week that conceding the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the disputed waters is a ground for the president’s impeachment.
Carpio said that China may ask the Duterte administration to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty in contested South China Sea territories before agreeing to any business deals or joint exploration of potential sea resources.
Asked to react to Carpio’s warning, Duterte said he agreed with him.
“He is correct. I would be impeached,” the president said at a news conference at the international airport in the southern city of Davao before embarking on his two-nation trip.
“I said we cannot barter which is not ours (or what) belongs to the Filipino people,” said Duterte, who is a lawyer and once served as a government prosecutor. “I cannot be the sole authorized agent, for that is not allowed under the constitution.”
Duterte, who was Davao’s mayor before assuming the presidency in June, has walked a tightrope in trying to mend damaged relations with China and defending his country’s claims in the disputed South China Sea.
In July, an international arbitration tribunal ruled that China’s massive claims to the sea on historical grounds were not valid under a 1982 U.N. treaty, handing a landmark victory to the Philippines, which had filed a complaint against Beijing under Duterte’s predecessor.
The tribunal in The Hague specifically ruled that China has violated the rights of Filipino fishermen, who have been blocked by the Chinese coast guard from fishing in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, off the northwest Philippines.
“The international decision will be taken up,” Duterte said. But he added without elaborating that “there will be no hard impositions.” When the tribunal’s July 12 decision was announced, Duterte did not make any celebratory remarks that he said could offend China, which has ignored the decision as a sham and campaigned to discourage governments from recognizing the ruling.
Duterte has not pressed the Chinese government to comply with the decision.
Labeling himself a left-wing politician, Duterte has announced step to scale back the Philippines’ military engagements with the U.S., including his opposition to joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea and joint combat exercises with American forces. He has lashed out at President Barack Obama for criticizing his deadly anti-drug campaign, but has reached out to China and Russia.
Duterte will travel to Brunei before making a three-day visit to China that starts Tuesday in the southern city of Xiamen. He’ll then fly to Beijing, where, Duterte said, “We will stick towards our claim. We do not bargain anything.”
Aside from President Xi, Duterte said he would also meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and National People’s Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang.
“This is a matter of international comity when you go there, we only want to talk,” he said. “And remember, there are only two options: We go to trouble or we talk.”
“We cannot choose the path there in between,” said Duterte, who has ruled out any war with the Asian superpower.