Duterte tells China: South China Sea code 'least concern of' US

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 31) — President Rodrigo Duterte revealed he has received a lot of queries on the progress of the long-delayed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and that the "biggest urgency" comes from the non-claimant Western countries.

"And I would like to tell you now, in front of the media and all, that the passing of --- or the passage of the Code of Conduct by China and everyone else is the least concern of America," Duterte said during his bilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on Friday.

The US, a longstanding military ally of the Philippines, does not claim any part of the South China Sea, but conducts freedom of navigation operations and calls out China's alleged militarization of contested areas. In the West Philippine Sea which the Philippines claims and occupies, China has built artificial islands, blocked Filipino fishermen from fishing, and 'interfered' in oil exploration.

Duterte told Li he decided to visit China for the fifth time to talk about the Code of Conduct, which would outline what claimant countries can and cannot do in contested waters. Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also have competing claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been pushing for a legally binding code for decades but progress has been slow because of resistance from China. Prior to his Beijing trip, Duterte lamented how China is perceived to be delaying the passage of the code. The Philippines is country coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations until 2021.

Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping during their bilateral meeting on Thursday committed to adopt the Code of Conduct "at an early date," state-run Xinhua reported. Malacañang said the two leaders agreed on the need to pass the code within the last three years of the Duterte presidency.

The controversial meeting comes on the heels of government protests over the passage of Chinese warships and survey vessels in Philippine waters, and the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese trawler. Duterte and Xi agreed to exercise self-restraint in the contested waters, according to the Malacañang.