MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Southeast Asian leaders ended their annual summit in Manila on Saturday without any sign that host Philippines raised its crucial arbitration victory against China over disputed South China Sea territories.
President Rodrigo Duterte has said he would not raise the July 12 ruling, which invalidated China’s historic claims to most of the disputed waters, as he moved to warm once-frosty ties with and secure infrastructure funding from Beijing.
Duterte, who took office in June, has promised to take up the decision with China during his six-year term. The 72-year-old leader, however, faced calls to raise the ruling in the summit of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that he hosted Saturday.
A final draft of the communique Duterte would issue after the summit did not mention his country’s arbitration triumph over China.
An alternative phrase, “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes,” was removed from a South China Sea chapter and moved elsewhere in the draft statement as Chinese officials have requested, three Philippine officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.
“Non-mention of The Hague ruling would be a diplomatic triumph for China,” said former Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez, referring to the European tribunal that issued the landmark decision.
“It might embolden them to advance some more in their South China Sea master plan,” said Golez, who has called for a stronger Philippine response to increasingly bolder steps by China to assert its claims in the disputed sea, one of the world’s busiest.
Duterte has said he would not take up the arbitration ruling in the ASEAN summit because it was an issue between China and the Philippines and did not concern other members of the 10-nation regional bloc.
Aside from the Philippines, ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also are involved in the territorial conflicts, which many fear could spark the next major armed conflict in economically bustling Asia. China and Taiwan constitute the rest of the claimants of the waters that are believed to be sitting atop potential oil and gas deposits.
Concern over the standoff between North Korea and President Donald Trump’s administration also was high on the agenda of the ASEAN summit.
Duterte suggested Saturday to his American counterpart to back away from an intensifying standoff with North Korea, not in surrender but to avoid risking a nuclear holocaust that could smother Asia.
Duterte said at a news conference after hosting the summit that he expected a call from Trump later Saturday. He said he would ask the U.S. president “to see to it that there is no war because my region will suffer immensely.”
The Philippine leader did not explain why Trump planned to call him.
Duterte said: “It would be good for America to just restrain a little bit, and if I were President Trump, I’ll just back out, not really in surrender and retreat.”
“It behooves upon America, who wields the biggest stick, just to really be prudent and patient. We know that we are playing with somebody who relishes letting go of his missiles and everything,” he said.
During the daylong summit, the spotlight also was on Duterte.
The 72-year-old leader faces a mass murder complaint before the International Criminal Court and an impeachment bid at home as bodies continue to pile up in his drugs campaign.
Duterte found solace from the storm of criticism in ASEAN, which has a bedrock policy forbidding member states from meddling in each other’s domestic affairs.
That has helped ASEAN, founded a half-century ago, to become an unwieldy collective of dictatorships, authoritarian states and a monarchy, along with fledgling democracies.