President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday night vowed to raise with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping Beijing’s militarization of the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), saying leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) were “worried” about it.
Speaking to reporters in Vietnam, Duterte said it was about time to make Xi aware that Asean member-states were concerned over China’s deployment of weapons to its occupied islands in the contested waters, as shown in satellite photographs.
Prior to leaving for Vietnam, Duterte vowed to take a firmer stance against China, saying he would ask Xi what China really intended to do in the disputed territories.
Duterte is scheduled to confer with Xi during a bilateral meeting at the sidelines of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on Saturday.
“We are friends, I’m ready to listen to China. But of course, 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…but afraid that there might be a mistake and there would be shooting,” the President said during a news conference.
“Those arms…are not there for any other purpose. They are not decorations. They’re there because China would need them. For what purpose, I really do not know,” he added.
Duterte reiterated that he was not interested in going to war with China but said he had to “carry the voice of Asean” as chairman of the regional bloc’s summit this year.
He said the “best way” was to have a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea.
Asean and China are eyeing to complete this year a framework for a legally binding code of conduct in the contested waters.
“The Asean’s (position is) up to where are we supposed and to what extent would be the use of that [sea]passage? The best way is to have a written code of conduct. So just you read it and you’d know that you are not crossing boundaries because as of now, it is a contested claim,” he said.
Duterte recalled however that Xi had vowed not to build any structure on Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground in the country’s exclusive economic zone that was seized by China in 2012 following a standoff with the Philippines.
“China, who is there, who controls the passage, must come up with a code of conduct,” he said. “I would insist that we hurry up. Now, he (Xi) said they will not build anything in the Scarborough Shoal.”
Four Asean member-states – Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam – are claiming parts of the South China Sea. China and Taiwan are claiming most of its features.
The previous Aquino administration saw the Philippines filing a legal protest against China before a UN-backed arbitration tribunal, which Beijing refuses to recognize.
But when Duterte assumed office last year, Philippine foreign policy leaned toward Beijing, and the President vowed not to insist on the Philippines’ legal victory against China in exchange for greater economic cooperation and aid.