Duterte: South China Sea issue 'better left untouched'

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President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 12) — President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday rejected confrontation with China and pushed for cooperation in resolving the South China Sea dispute.

"The other hot heads would like us to confront China and the rest of the world for so many issues. The South China Sea is better left untouched. Nobody can afford to go to war," Duterte told businessmen at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Business Investment Summit.

Duterte said Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed with his stance to pursue diplomacy and cooperation over the maritime row. The two leaders met Saturday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.

"He made it clear to us that the only way to go is cooperation. And so I should say that we should open our doors to everybody. Ideological conflicts are no longer in the vogue, it's passé," Duterte said in his remarks at the investment summit’s opening held at the Solaire Resort and Casino in Paranaque City.

His remarks come a day before the 20th ASEAN-China Summit on Monday, which President Duterte will chair. In attendance will be all the nine other ASEAN leaders and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

The ASEAN-China Summit is expected to “announce the start of the negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement.

A framework for the Code of Conduct was adopted by Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN and China in August in Manila. Experts are skeptic and have said such a Code of Conduct would take long in coming and will dependent on China’s commitment.

READ: Experts doubt ASEAN, China will reach Code of Conduct on South China Sea during summit

Duterte set the conciliatory tone for dialogue on the long-running South China Sea dispute even in his pre-departure speech before leaving for APEC in Vietnam on November 8. He said "It’s about time that ASEAN countries, not really to confront, but to make clear to us what China really wants."

Duterte told the business community he waited two hours before he finally got to talk to Xi on Saturday. He said Xi expressed to Duterte his “surprise” at the “strong statement” the President made before his departure for the APEC Summit.

"He was quite surprised about my coming in very strong in my statement here about the conduct of the sea. I said, 'I am not raising any sovereign issue. Do not worry,'" Duterte said.

"I had to do it because the Philippines chairs the ASEAN now,” he added. ASEAN’s 50th year in 2017 falls under the chairmanship of the Philippines.

Aside from the Philippines and China, ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, also have competing claims in the South China Sea.

China has guaranteed safe passage in the disputed waters, Duterte said in a news conference early Sunday on his arrival from Vietnam.

READ: Duterte: China guarantees safe passage in South China Sea

The President reiterated that the Philippines is not giving up its rightful claims over the Spratlys in the South China Sea. China has refused to recognize an International Arbitral ruling in July 2016 that affirmed the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea.

But Duterte said he had to focus on more pressing domestic problems.

Just three weeks ago, the government declared the end of five months of hostilities in Marawi City and subdued the ISIS-inspired Maute Group. China was among the first countries that came to the aid of the Philippines by offering millions of dollars in financial and in-kind assistance, including arms and heavy equipment for the rebuilding of the city.

“We never surrendered anything,” Duterte said early Sunday. “Just saying that I do not want to talk about this at the moment. It is not time for aggression. It is not time for violence. We have so many problems domestic to take care of before we start to venture to some sort of aggressive stand,” he added.

Last May, China pledged $24 billion dollars worth of investments, including a railway project in Mindanao, as well as two bridges in Pasig City.

The country’s total exports to China was pegged at over ₱327 billion and import at over ₱799 billion in 2016.

The ASEAN Business and Investment Summit will run until Tuesday. It will feature forums on ASEAN infrastructure programs including the Philippines’ “Build, Build, Build”, sessions with the region’s top businessmen, and an initiative to boost micro-, small-, and medium enterprises which form nearly 85 percent of the world’s economies.