Duterte tells ASEAN, Beijing: Resist urge to militarize South China Sea

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 13) — President Rodrigo Duterte appealed for non-militarization and self-restraint in the disputed South China Sea during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit with Beijing.

“Let us resist the urge to militarize features, to intimidate and to use other coercive actions,” Duterte said at the ASEAN-China Summit on Thursday, according to a statement released by the Palace on Friday. The high-level meeting, which was part of the 37th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits, was done via video conference due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Let us yield to confidence-building rather than cast doubts and suspicion on each other,” Duterte added.

Beijing is criticized for military buildup in artificial islands it occupies in the South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely. In August, the United States government sanctioned several Chinese companies “for their role in helping the Chinese military construct and militarize the internationally condemned artificial islands." It said China dredged and constructed more than 3,000 acres, installing air-defense and anti-ship features.

READ: PH to honor contracts with Chinese firms despite US blacklist – Palace

The U.S. does not claim any part of the global waterway but conducts freedom of navigation operations and declares most of China’s maritime claims illegal.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and self-governing Taiwan have their own territorial claims in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway for trade that is also believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.

The 10-member ASEAN is in talks with the Chinese government for a Code of Conduct which will determine the only allowable actions countries can take in the South China Sea. The ASEAN has been pushing for a legally-binding pact to govern behavior in the region for decades but progress has been slow largely due to resistance from China.

In the same summit, Duterte, coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, pressed for the timely completion “of an effective and substantive” Code of Conduct.

“And if I may add, it has been a long time and it is a long wait,” Duterte said.

READ: Duterte presses ASEAN on code of conduct in South China Sea

Duterte reiterated that the Philippines seeks peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – the basis for the country’s 2016 victory before an arbitral tribunal in The Hague.

The ruling dismissed China’s expansive claims and recognized that areas in the West Philippine Sea that are being claimed by Beijing fall within Manila’s exclusive economic zone. China rejects the landmark decision.

Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping said they “agree to disagree” on the issue and are setting the ruling aside to focus on opportunities for cooperation, such as the planned joint oil and gas exploration.

READ: China looks forward to 'new progress' in oil exploration deal with PH

During the summit, Duterte took the time to thank China for its contribution to the regional bloc's COVID-19 response fund, as well as for its commitment to make available to other countries any coronavirus vaccine it would produce.

The coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China and has since infected more than 52.85 million people worldwide.

Amid the pandemic, the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs filed several diplomatic protests with China for its actions in the West Philippine Sea.

The latest was in August, calling out the Chinese Coast Guard’s illegal confiscation of local fishermen’s devices in Scarborough, a shoal west of Zambales, and its issuance of radio challenges at aircraft conducting regular maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea.