Duterte says helpless against China

Ayee Macaraig, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Apr 28 2017 02:09 AM

President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday there was no point protesting Chinese artificial island building in disputed areas of the South China Sea because it could not be stopped.

Duterte made the comments ahead of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit this week, and he confirmed he would not use the event to pressure China on its expansionism in the strategically vital waters.

"It cannot be an issue anymore. It's already there. What would be the purpose also of discussing it if you cannot do anything," Duterte told reporters.

China has been turning reefs and shoals in areas of the sea claimed by the Philippines and other nations into artificial islands, and installing military facilities there.

The United States has criticised the construction work, warning against militarisation in the waterway where $5 trillion in annual trade passes.

China's reclamation has also rattled other claimants, which include ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. 

Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had challenged China by asking a UN-backed tribunal to outlaw Beijing's sweeping claims to the sea and its reclamation work. 

The tribunal last year ruled largely in the Philippines' favor.

However Duterte, who came to office shortly before the ruling was issued, adopted a pragmatic approach to dealing with China in a bid to win billions of dollars worth of trade and aid. 

- 'US to blame' -

Duterte, who has also sought to loosen the Philippines' long-standing alliance with the United States, on Thursday blamed the superpower for failing to stop China's reclamation activities.

"Who can stop that? Us? It's only America. But how come they allowed that to happen," Duterte said, adding the United States could have used its navy to stop the reclamation work years ago. 

Duterte said he would not raise the ruling during the ASEAN events this week, with the bloc's foreign ministers meeting on Friday and the leaders convening on Saturday.

"I will skip the arbitral ruling. It is not an issue here in the ASEAN," he said.

"It's only between China and the Philippines so I will skip that."

Duterte said he preferred to discuss a code of conduct on the South China Sea. 

Philippine diplomats have said a "framework" code of conduct might be completed by June.

Duterte expressed optimism a code of conduct would ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the waters. 

"The code of conduct at sea is another story. It must be taken up," Duterte said referring to the ASEAN summit.

Analysts have cautioned that China has been delaying negotiations on a code since it was proposed 15 years ago, and used that time to build its artificial islands and take control of other contested features.

The ASEAN leaders will on Saturday express concern about events in the sea but will be less direct about island building, according to a draft of a chairman's statement to be released at the end of the summit.

"We shared the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region," the statement said.

However it did not mention China directly, nor the international tribunal's ruling.