MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday said he is worried by the tension between Western nations, led by the United States, and China in the South China Sea, as the Philippines could be dragged into a potential conflict between the two military powers.
Duterte and his fellow Southeast Asian leaders are scheduled to meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday morning and the Filipino leader said he will push for the creation of a binding code of conduct among claimants of the disputed South China Sea in order to better manage the sea tension.
Ownership of islands and waters in the South China Sea is disputed by several nations. China, which claims virtually all of the sea, has established military positions on disputed outcrops and intimidates fishermen and naval vessels from rival countries.
Duterte noted that while “everything has been excellent” between the ASEAN and China with regard to managing the sea dispute, it’s a different story for Western nations, including the US, which insists on their freedom to fly over and sail through the hotly contested sea.
The President told reporters he will remind China of Manila’s mutual defense agreement with Washington, which requires one to defend the other in case of an attack in its territory, as he warned of a potential “serious miscalculation” in the disputed sea which could disrupt the peace and stability in the region.
“It's not abrogated. It's there. And even --- I don't know. It's the decision of the President, Congress, the Armed Forces,” Duterte said of the treaty.
“I am worried. I expressed it last night because we have a defense treaty --- mutual defense…with the US and there’s some --- a serious miscalculation. You know because of the treaty I'd like to tell China ---that is why at all cost we must have the COC (code of conduct),” he added.
“So you’re there, you’re in possession, you occupied it. Then tell us what route shall we take and what kind of behavior,” he added, referring to China and its occupation of man-made islands in the South China Sea.
The US has staged various freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the South China Sea, triggering an angry response from China.
BEIJING WANTS CODE IN THREE YEARS
Li on Tuesday said the code of conduct should be finished in three years, insisting his nation does not seek "hegemony or expansion."
Li’s comments appeared to be the first clear timeframe for finishing the code of conduct. Talks have dragged on for years, with China accused of delaying progress as it prefers to deal with less powerful countries on a one-on-one basis.
Beijing and the 10-member ASEAN have for years sought to hammer out a code to govern disputes in the disputed waters, but the process has moved slowly.
Speaking in Singapore ahead of the opening of an ASEAN summit, Li said: “It is China’s hope that the (code of conduct) consultation will be finished in three years’ time so that it will contribute to enduring peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
“We are not and we will not seek hegemony or expansion. That is something that we will never do,” he added.
“What we hope is to have a harmonious relationship with our neighbors.”
There have been small signs of progress in recent months.
China and Southeast Asian nations announced in August that they had agreed on their initial bargaining positions as they work towards a code.
While both sides hailed it as a vital step, critics said that some of Beijing's proposals in the agreement were clearly aimed at expanding its influence in the region at the expense of Washington.
Navies from China and Southeast Asia also staged their first joint drills last month in the South China Sea — which is crisscrossed by busy shipping lanes and home to abundant natural resources — in an effort to ease tensions.
Opposition has weakened in many parts of Southeast Asia to China’s aggressive behavior in the waters in recent years, with countries keen to attract investment from Beijing and worried about US commitment to the region under President Donald Trump. - with Pia Gutierrez, ABS-CBN News; AFP