President Rodrigo Duterte said he intends to impress on China’s President Xi Jinping the need for a “code of conduct” among nations in the South China Sea.
Yet, despite the seeming departure from his previously conciliatory stance on the issue of China’s reclamation and construction on disputed territory in the vital waterway, Duterte stressed he continues to value the close relations he has worked to bolster with the Asian giant.
Duterte and Xi are scheduled to meet Saturday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam.
“I’m not criticizing China,” Duterte said. “I’m just telling them that it is high time for us to have that code of conduct of the sea.”
“I do not want to lose (the) friendship of China,” he stressed. “China is a good friend. China was there when we needed most their help,” an apparent reference to a donation of guns and ammunition while government forces battled extremist gunmen in Marawi City.
But, he added that, as this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, “I have to carry the voice of ASEAN” and “tell the truth that everybody is worried.”
Before leaving for Vietnam earlier this week, Duterte also said he planned to raise the issue of the conflicting claims and ask China its real intentions because it was time for Manila to clarify if Southeast Asian countries were allowed to freely navigate the strategic waterway through which about $3 trillion in trade passes every year.
“So it’s about time, either in the bilateral or in the plenary, I should be bringing this important matter to the surface,” Duterte said.
In the past, Duterte has repeatedly said he will raise the sea dispute at the proper time and avoided the issue when Manila hosted two regional meetings this year.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also said the two countries will negotiate a military protocol to avoid maritime “miscalculations” following a brief standoff near over a fisherman’s shelter on a sandbar near Pag-asa Island.
China objected and sent ships to the area.
Duterte sought to defuse tensions by ordering troops to pull out. Construction was stopped.