By Argyll Cyrus Geducos and AP
United States (US) President Donald Trump has offered to mediate in the South China Sea disputes Sunday and while his Chinese counterpart played down concerns over Beijing’s military buildup and the prospects of war in the contested waters.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke separately about the territorial rifts ahead of an annual summit of Southeast Asian nations with the US, China, and other global players in Manila, where the disputes are expected to get the spotlight, along with North Korea’s nuclear threat and terrorism.
“I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator,” Trump said during a news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi before flying to Manila for the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Trump’s offer faces major obstacles. For one, China has steadfastly opposed what it calls U.S. meddling in the disputes and has balked at the U.S. Navy’s incursions into what Beijing considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea.
Washington is not among the claimants to the waterway, among the busiest in the world, but it has declared it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of the disputes. Allies back an active American military presence in the disputed waters to serve as a counterweight to China’s increasingly assertive actions, including the construction of seven man-made islands equipped with military installations.
Upon his return to Manila from Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, President Duterte revealed that Xi was quite surprised when he expressed last week his plan to raise the issue on the maritime dispute.
“He [Xi] was quite surprised about my coming in very strong of my statement here about the conduct of the sea,” said Duterte, adding that Xi understood where he was coming from.
The Chief Executive said that he explained to Xi that he was bringing up the issue during their bilateral talks in Da Nang, Vietnam as Chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“I said, ‘I am not raising any sovereign issue. Do not worry.’ But as Chairman, I made it a tunnel for the communications to be active,” Duterte said.
“I had to do it because the Philippines chairs the ASEAN now. I cannot escape that from my duty so I have every right to ask him. But I explained it to him in a very nice way,” he added.
Xi also assured Duterte that all countries have the rights of the safe passage in the disputed South China Sea.
Duterte said Xi assured him of China’s peaceful intentions in the strategic waterway, where Beijing, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have overlapping claims, during a meeting in Danang, Vietnam, where they attended the annual APEC summit this week.
Duterte said that when he raised concerns over China’s increasing military capability in the South China Sea, Xi replied: “No, it’s nothing.”
“He acknowledged that war cannot be promoted by anybody, (that) it would only mean destruction for all of us,” Duterte said in a news conference after flying back to Manila. “He knows that if he goes to war, everything will blow up.”
The Chinese leader, however, would not back down on Beijing’s territorial claim, Duterte said and justified his decision not to immediately demand Chinese compliance with a ruling by a UN-linked tribunal that invalidated China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea on historical grounds.
China has dismissed that ruling as a “sham” and did not participate in the arbitration case that the Philippines filed during the time of Duterte’s predecessor. Duterte took steps to thaw frosty relations with China after he won the presidency last year.
“If you go to the negotiating table and you start with the statement ‘that I am here to claim validity of our ownership,’ you’re wasting your time. They will not talk about it,” Duterte had said of China.
Duterte reiterated that there will come a time that he will talk with Xi about the country’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea.
“We are almost fined-tuned to the realities of the moment. But there will always be a time, I said, that we have to talk about this. The Philippines and China minus everybody,” Duterte said.
Duterte also assured that the government is protecting the country’s rights over the disputed waters while building a good relationship with the Asian giant.
“We never surrendered anything. I do not want to talk about this for the moment. It is not time for aggression, it is not time for violence,” he said.
Duterte said that it would have been much easier if he is only dealing with China, but noted of the other claimants. “And that is why the truth is, if I could only confront China, or if it is China alone, then there’s no problem. But I said there are contesting countries which has overlapping jurisdictions. And if I engage China now, I will have to engage the five other,” he said.
Other claimants to the South China Sea are Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Meantime, Duterte found his bilateral talks with Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the APEC Summit to be the most productive and meaningful because of the renewed his friendship with the two countries.
“The most productive, by the way, was our talk with President Xi Jinping and President Putin,” he said. “I also took the opportunity to meet my counterparts from many economies. I renewed my friendship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and with President Xi Jinping of China,” he added.
Duterte said he is seeing a very bright future for the relationship between the Philippines and China but said this would not involve an agreement on military cooperation.
“I see a very bright future for our relationship. Nothing to do with military,” he said.
Duterte thanked Xi anew for China’s assistance during the height of the battle for Marawi City, Lanao del Sur against the Daesh-inspired terrorists.
Duterte shared that Xi vowed to honor China’s commitment to assist the Philippines, including the construction of two bridges over the Pasig River.
“He [Xi] confirms everything that he promised. But everything went smoothly and the President of China said that he would honor what he promised,” Duterte said.