President Rodrigo Duterte watches the opening ceremony of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 at the National Aquatics Center in Beijing, People’s Republic of China on Aug. 30, 2019. With the President is Chinese President Xi Jinping. ROBINSON NIÑAL JR./PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

Rodrigo Duterte knew exactly how that meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping would end.

Regardless if the meeting happened three years ago or just on Thursday night, it really didn’t matter because the outcome of the conversation would be same.

As expected, the leader of the world’s second largest economy and Asia’s number one military power ignored and dismissed as nonsense what Duterte tried to bring to his attention – the 2016 arbitration ruling in The Hague declaring China’s historical claim on almost the entire South China Sea, through the nine-dash-line drawn up only a few years after the end of the Second World War, as without basis, illegal and too expansive, and a violation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Duterte was clever enough to take up the issue with Xi during their face-to-face meeting rather than in a public forum, because that would surely draw the ire of the arrogant Chinese leader who has suddenly found too much confidence in bullying smaller and weaker neighbors.

When Duterte became mayor of Davao City in the late 1980s, China was still a slumbering giant and fumbling northern neighbor, and would probably react differently to what it could consider an offensive and inappropriate comment.

Now, it will not take lightly the slightest criticism of its activities in the South China Sea. Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, the leader of a wealthy but tiny Southeast Asian country, learned it the hard way in 2017 when he made a remark about China’s activities in the disputed strategic waterway. It cost him a seat in the first Belt and Road summit in Beijing.

Duterte is an astute politician and a wise student of history. His best teachers were former presidents Fidel V. Ramos, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, drawing lessons from their engagements with Beijing

China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea began during Ramos’ presidency when Beijing built a makeshift fishermen’s shelter on Mischief Reef in 1995. The reef has transformed into a fortress and a huge artificial island with an airfield and secured port.

China poured billions of investments during Arroyo’s presidency, although some of them were tainted with big-time corruption, like the North Rail project and the public broadband deal.

Investments dried up and trade declined under Aquino after he filed a case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which the Philippines won in 2016 but remains unenforced because Beijing refuses to recognize the decision.

When Duterte came to office, he chose to shelve the arbitration ruling and began wooing back China, which rewarded his administration with billions of pesos in  investment pledges. China however has not fully committed to investing and extending development and commercial loans three years into Duterte’s presidency.

But relations have blossomed, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese visitors and workers entering the country and offshore gambling operations mushrooming around the capital Manila and other urban centers and special economic zones.

Duterte’s five visits to China in three years and ninth meeting with Xi are a testament to growing ties between the two countries, despite territorial differences in the South China Sea.

It seems Duterte places a high value on his personal relations with Xi and is more concerned with what the country could benefit economically from close ties with Beijing, that he would swallow his pride and accept Xi’s rebuff on the South China Sea issue.

It was difficult to conclude on what actually did happened in the meeting and how the issue was discussed by the two leaders. It was not explained how the actual exchanges happened and how the issue was raised, as information about the meeting came only from the president’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, and from the Philippine ambassador to China, Chito Sta. Romana.

Rodolfo Severino, the late journalist-turned-diplomat who was formerly secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), was a master note-taker during face-to-face meetings when Ramos was president from 1992 to 1998.

When he briefed journalists after Ramos’ meetings with counterparts in Asean or in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Severino accurately gave blow-by-blow accounts, including gestures and actual quotes during exchanges.

These exchanges were normally short meetings, lasting at least 20 minutes. Journalists marveled at how Severino could remember every single detail of the conversation. It was a skill that Panelo must learn to give reporters covering the president an accurate account of what transpired during one-on-one meetings.

Of course, Severino would tell journalists only the details he was allowed to divulge and would likely interest nosy reporters.

Back to the Duterte-Xi meeting. Panelo told journalists the president did raise the arbitration ruling in his meeting with the Chinese leader. But it lacked context on how the issue was discussed, the tone of the conversation and the manner by which it was delivered by the president. It could have been raised just in passing and both sides did not devote time and energy on the issue.

There are still too many questions about how the issue was raised, but officials are not in the mood to further discuss it. For them, it was enough the president had spoken about it and they would rather keep quiet because the Chinese leader was not interested in the topic anyway.

Duterte knew the response from Xi even before the issue was raised. Three years ago, after the Philippines won the landmark ruling and up to now, China has not changed its position. It was completely futile to raise it and do nothing to follow up and insist on recognizing the decision, unless the Philippines is ready to return to a situation during the Aquino administration.

Raising the issue and forgetting it after getting a rebuff is not the right attitude. It is not the right approach to seek closure on the issue. The Philippines must continue to insist on its sovereign rights. Learn from Nicaragua and Madagascar. They also faced world powers like the United States and United Kingdom but in the end, they prevailed and won back their territories.

So, the question now: What should we do next, Mr. President?