MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday it was pointless discussing Beijing’s contentious activities in the South China Sea at this week’s Southeast Asian summit, and no one dared to pressure China anyway.
The no-nonsense former mayor scoffed at questions from reporters about whether China’s rapid reclamation of uninhabited reefs or enforcement of an international arbitration ruling last year would be brought up with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Saturday.
“Who will dare pressure?” he said. “Who can pressure China? Us?”
Asked how ASEAN should deal with China, Duterte said dialogue was the only option.
“The way we’re doing, talking - that’s the only luxury we have,” he said.
“Action? Tell us how. Tell me. Educate me how.”
The Philippines is hosting meetings of ASEAN this year. The bloc will adopt a softer than usual tone about South China Sea disputes and exclude references to militarisation or island-building, according to a draft of the chairman’s statement.
China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
The Philippines’ chairing of ASEAN comes amid a charm offensive by Duterte, who has opted to court China for its business and investment and avoid rows over sovereignty that dogged his predecessors.
Duterte has been accused by critics of taking a defeatist position on China and on defending Philippine sovereignty. He considers his approach is pragmatic and says challenging China risks triggering a war.
The previous government in 2013 filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to set the record straight on maritime boundaries. The tribunal did that last year, and invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
Duterte, who has put the ruling on the back burner and said he will revisit it later in his term, said it was a waste of time for ASEAN to discuss that award now, and it was not relevant.
“Arbitral is simply entitlement. It’s not even a territorial thing. The only question at arbitral was entitlement, not jurisdiction, not even territory,” he said.
“How will you raise the issue? .... We cannot on our own enforce the arbitral judgement.”
He added: “Before, China said we will not honour (it), so why will you force (them) to honour? You’re just looking for trouble. Can we go to war?”
The Philippines is determined to agree a framework for a China-ASEAN code of conduct on the South China Sea during its chairmanship, though there is some scepticism about why it has China’s support now, 15 years after the idea of drafting a code was agreed.
Critics and some diplomats see China’s compliance as a stalling tactic to show it was engaging in diplomacy, while buying time to expand and fortify its presence in the Spratly archipelago.
Asked about China’s sincerity towards completing the code, Duterte said tensions at sea were the fault of the United States.
“Here’s how it is. They (China) really claim it as their own, even a long time ago,” he said. “The issue hasn’t really exploded until the Americans made it to be.”
The mercurial leader said the issue of piracy would be raised during the summit, but his position was clear.
“If any ship of any country of the ASEAN or any ship of that matter, in dealing with piracy, my order is just to blow them up,” he said. “Why should I arrest them?”
He was also asked his view on the rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear programme, an issue likely to be discussed by ASEAN.
“My reaction is kindly, kindly use your patience,” he said. “It would be as good as any other time to advise now, people, just go easy.”
Editing by Nick Macfie