VIENTIANE: After months of confrontations in the South China Sea and days of high-stakes diplomacy, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday the time has arrived to "move away from the public tensions and turn the page."
Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Monday on the sidelines of a regional gathering of Southeast Asian countries. China had scored a diplomatic victory when a watered-down joint statement from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations did not criticize China for its actions in the South China Sea and did not mention a tribunal ruling that eviscerated China's historic claims to the waters.
Kerry said at a news conference that the US is not taking sides on the substance of maritime disputes from countries such as the Philippines, which took the case to the tribunal in The Hague, but believes "rule of law must be upheld." China has said it will ignore the ruling, which it deems illegitimate. It leaned on Cambodia and other close allies to prevent Asean from making a critical statement, saying the disputes should be handled in one-on-one negotiations and not by the regional bloc.
But with The Hague ruling in the past, Kerry said he and Wang agreed it is time to lower the temperature. Kerry flies to Manila on Tuesday and is scheduled to meet with the Philippines new president, Rodrigo Duterte, on Wednesday. He said he will urge Duterte to negotiate with Beijing.
"Hopefully this can become a moment that we can all take advantage of, where we work out some of the modalities of how do you deal with the fishing? How do you deal with natural resources? How do you deal with the movement, the free movement of vessels and protect the rights of everybody?" Kerry said. "This could be a very important moment of shifting how this discussion is taking place and not being played out through public moves unilaterally and challenges, but in a constructive and thoughtful, engaged diplomatic manner."
Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay Jr. said Duterte had sent him to Laos with simple instructions. "I was just conscious of the fact that our president had said that whatever we will do, we will not violate the law, we will uphold the constitution and we will promote the paramount national interest," Yasay said.
Wang emphasized earlier that the Philippines' previous administration brought the case to the tribunal — suggesting an opening with Duterte, who took office in June.