President Duterte said there was no point even discussing China’s actions in the South China Sea when the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet on Saturday.
“Who will dare pressure?” he said. “Who can pressure China? Us?”
Asked how ASEAN should deal with China, the president replied that dialogue was the only option. “The way we’re doing, talking — that’s the only luxury we have,” he said. “Action? Tell us how. Tell me. Educate me how.”
According to a draft of the chairman’s statement the ASEAN bloc will take a softer tone on China’s apparent militarisation of the disputed waters.
China claims almost all of the energy-rich South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. As well as the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the territory.
Critics accuse the president of taking a defeatist position on China and failing to defend Philippine sovereignty. He maintains that his approach is merely pragmatic, and believes that challenging China could triggering a war.
In 2013, the previous government filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to confirm the contested maritime boundaries.
Last summer, the tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines, and invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the waters. The current president has largely ignored this ruling.
He said today: “Arbitral is simply entitlement. It’s not even a territorial thing. The only question at arbitral was entitlement, not jurisdiction, not even territory.
“How will you raise the issue? We cannot on our own enforce the arbitral judgment.
“Before, China said we will not honour it, so why will you force them to honour? You’re just looking for trouble. Can we go to war?”
Instead there are plans to agree a ‘framework’ for a China-ASEAN code of conduct on the South China Sea, although there is scepticism about why this proposal now has China’s support, 15 years after the idea of drafting such a code was first mooted.
There are some who see China’s compliance as a stalling tactic to buy time to expand and fortify its presence in the waters.
Asked about China’s sincerity towards completing the code, the president said current tensions were the fault of the US.
“Here’s how it is. They (China) really claim it as their own, even a long time ago,” he said. “The issue hasn’t really exploded until the Americans made it to be.”