Duterte, ASEAN leaders pull back from South China Sea dispute

By Elizabeth Shim   |   May 1, 2017 at 1:11 PM
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An exclusive report putting perspective on the week's most important developments.

May 1 (UPI) -- China's militarization of disputed South China Sea islands was the elephant in the room during a recent meeting of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte acceded to Chinese plans to continue buildup on the Spratly Islands.

"We cannot stop China from doing its thing. Even the Americans were not able to stop them," Duterte told reporters Monday at the Davao International Airport, the Philippine Star reported.

On Saturday, Duterte met with other Southeast Asian leaders at the ASEAN Summit in Manila.

An ASEAN chairman statement issued after the meeting shows evidence the regional bloc is backing away from direct confrontation with a more assertive Beijing.

Carlyle Thayer, an analyst at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia, said the document shows the Philippines abstained from referring to a United Nations-backed ruling on the South China Sea dispute, and that the waters are fast becoming "China's lake."

"In sum, although some ASEAN ministers feel progress is being made on managing maritime disputes in the South China Sea, the reality is that ASEAN is gradually accepting that the South China Sea has become China's lake," Thayer said.

The statement did not include calls for "self-restraint" with regards to land reclamation, according to Thayer.

But Duterte has said a "significant process" is being worked out so a code of conduct in the South China Sea is established.

On Monday the Philippine leader also said he is planning joint exercises with the Chinese navy.

"Yes, I said I agree. We can have joint exercises here in Mindanao, maybe in the Sulu Sea," Duterte said.

China's People's Liberation Army Navy has sent ships to tour more than 20 countries: a new-generation guided missile destroyer, the Changchun, the frigate ship Xingzhou and a supply ship, to mark the 68th anniversary of the navy.

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