AS the chairman of this year’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he is ready to raise the bloc’s concerns over China’s militarization in the South China Sea.
Duterte, who is currently in Vietnam, is expected to have a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the weekend on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
The Philippine president said he will ask questions “reflecting the sentiments” of the ASEAN countries while telling the Chinese leader that “everybody is worried” about the growing militarization of the disputed area.
“I will tell him straight. ‘You know, Mr. President, the whole of the ASEAN is worried about how we should behave in the seas that are now militarized,’” said Duterte in a press conference on Thursday, November 9.
In addition to the Philippines, ASEAN member-countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are claiming parts of the South China Sea; while China is claiming virtually the entire waters.
Underscoring the importance of safe navigation through the disputed sea, Duterte said he will push for a code of conduct with China that will allow competing countries to pass through the area without provoking the ire of the other claimants.
Duterte ruled out going to war with Beijing in order to stop the latter from its reclamation works, saying he prefers to settle the dispute in a peaceful means.
“Those arms and they are not there for any other purpose. They are not decorations,” the President said.
“They are there because China would need. For what purpose? I really do not know. But if it’s war, forget it. I’m not interested to go to war with China. I’m interested in friendship,” he continued.
After being criticized for quickly ordering the halt of the building of shelters in Sandy Cay amid China’s protest, Duterte said he made the move to de-escalate the tension in the area.
The sandbar, Duterte noted, is not only being contested by the Manila and Beijing, but by other nations as well.
“It was not because of China alone. But you’d be facing a multiple action against the contestants which are claiming overlapping jurisdictions [here in South] China Sea,” Duterte explained.
He went on to say, “Taiwan is making noise and they are poised to build also their own. And Malaysia which is also claiming part of the islands, which are also, I said, a part of our claim, jurisdiction sa economic zone.”
Earlier, Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano questioned Duterte’s order to stop the construction of shelters for Filipino fishermen in Sandy Cay after receiving a strong opposition from the Chinese government.
In a statement, Alejano insisted that China “has no acceptable basis to react negatively” to construction work in Sandy Cay, located some 2.5 nautical miles off Pag-asa Island.
Pointing out that the area was “not a new occupation” by the Philippines and has “traditionally been under effective control of the Philippine troops,” Alejano insisted that the country “did not violate the Declaration of Conduct.”
He further criticized Duterte for “downplaying the situation in the West Philippine Sea” while letting China continue to “push” the Philippines “into the corner.”
“Just a minute reaction from China and the Philippines would immediately halt its actions. Meanwhile, Chinese forces, military and coast guard, are illegally entering our Exclusive Economic Zone yet our [Foreign Affairs] Secretary [Alan Peter Cayetano] and the President could only respond that we assume good faith in their actions,” Alejano said.
He expressed hope that the administration would soon realize the importance and urgency of asserting the arbitration tribunal at The Hague ruling 2016 which concluded that China’s massive claim South China had no legal basis.
“There could not be any more proper time to stress it than now. We do not want to waste time that we could use to peacefully strengthen our claims,” Alejano added.
Prior to his departure for APEC summit, Duterte said he will ask China what it “really wants” to do in the West Philippine Sea.
Referring to Xi Jinping, Duterte said, “I’ll just ask him, ‘What are the stakes? Do you want to control the passage or do we have the free passage?’”