UNITED STATES President Donald Trump has backed the stance of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to peacefully resolve the South China Sea dispute for the sake of regional stability.
The two leaders held their first formal bilateral meeting on Monday in Manila as part of the 31st Asean Summit and Related Summits themed “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World.”
In a joint statement released Tuesday, the two countries reiterated their commitment to uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight and the exercise of self-restraint over the disputed maritime territory largely claimed by China.
“They stressed the importance of peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea, in accordance with international law, as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” the statement said.
“They further underscored the need to continue pursuing confidence-building measures to increase mutual trust and confidence, and to refrain from actions that would escalate tensions, including militarisation,” it added.
On Sunday, Duterte said the South China Sea dispute was “better left untouched” because “nobody can afford to go to war.”
Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a bilateral meeting in Vietnam at the close of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit on Saturday. Trump also attended the APEC meeting where he offered to mediate the row on the South China Sea.
Beijing has dismissed the meddling of the United States in the South China Sea row, claiming it is an outsider in the region. But Washington continues to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in the Western Pacific for decades over concerns on freedom of navigation in the disputed maritime region.
Beijing claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to hold a wealth of untapped oil and gas deposits. An estimated US$5.3 trillion of trade passes annually in the disputed maritime region, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
Duterte said he had relayed to Xi the concerns of Asean member states over Beijing’s reclamation and militarisation in the disputed maritime region.
Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte was optimistic on the future direction of Sino-Southeast Asian relations following the Asean-China Summit on Monday in Manila.
“One of the outcomes of the meetings is to commence the negotiations on a substantive and effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea after concluding the Framework Agreement on the Code of Conduct,” Roque said in a statement.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who attended the meeting, expressed China’s commitment to work with Asean for peace and prosperity in the region.
“We are also committed to working with Asean to build a community of shared future featuring common ideas, common prosperity and a common responsibility,” he said.
“Among Asean’s dialogue partners, China-Asean relations are the most dynamic and the most substantive,” Li said, adding that China was the first to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia.
The treaty seeks to promote “perpetual peace, everlasting amity and cooperation among their peoples, which would contribute to their strength, solidarity and closer relationship.”
Particularly between China and the Philippines, their relationship has become closer after Duterte last year announced he will pursue an independent foreign policy. During a state visit in Beijing, he announced the Philippines’ “separation” from the United States, a long-time ally of Manila.
Duterte, because of the improving ties with Beijing as an offshoot of his independent foreign policy, has not been rushing the settling of the maritime dispute with China.
The Philippines scored a victory over China in their dispute over the South China Sea in July last year after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), based in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled that China’s claim was illegal.
However, China continues to defy the decision with its continued fortification of military assets in the South China Sea. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which was founded by US-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, reported last June that China was installing new missile shelters, radar and communication facilities and other infrastructure on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs, all in the Spratly Islands.
Former Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, who led the Philippine team in challenging China’s claim in the South China Sea before the Hague tribunal, lamented that since the favorable ruling, the Philippines “has not seen the change it would have wanted from Beijing.”
“It (China) has neither changed in its direction nor exercised greater restraint. Despite its friendlier face, we do not see restraint in China’s militarisation and unlawful activity in the West Philippine Sea,” del Rosario, also former Philippine ambassador to the United States, wrote on the occasion of the ruling’s first anniversary.