MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday called the South China Sea row between Manila and Beijing a "non-issue", as the Philippines hosts this week leaders from the region whose countries are also locked in a bitter maritime dispute with China.
Speaking to reporters, Duterte again stressed that now is not the right time to raise Manila’s arbitration victory against China, saying the ruling did not necessarily declare parts of the disputed sea as its territory but merely its entitlements.
Duterte issued this statement as he is set to host 9 other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The other ASEAN countries which have competing claims with China are Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
The President has been criticized for his soft stance towards China, as he chose to downplay Manila’s maritime row with Beijing in exchange for stronger economic ties.
The Philippines, as chairman of the ASEAN this year, has been urged to bring up Manila’s arbitration victory during the ASEAN meetings.
However, a draft of the chairman’s message obtained by ABS-CBN News made no mention of the arbitration victory.
The draft chairman's message would instead underscore the importance of "peace, stability, security, and freedom of navigation," and would urge all sea claimants to settle territorial disputes in a peaceful manner.
The Philippines, according to the draft document, shared the "serious concern expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area."
"We were pleased with the progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct (COC), in order to facilitate the early adoption of the COC within the ASEAN-China process," it said.