Mon, May 01, 2017 - Page 1 News List

Duterte easy on China for ASEAN

ASEAN COMMUNIQUE:The 25-page statement released yesterday was softer than a draft that was seen last week by reporters and which was backed by the other nations

AP, MANILA

From left to right, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Burmese State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on Saturday link hands during the opening ceremony of the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila.

Photo: Reuters

The Philippines followed up an ASEAN summit by releasing a final communique yesterday that removed mention of international concerns over China’s “militarization” of newly built islands in the disputed South China Sea in a major concession to Beijing.

The 25-page statement issued by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte following the day-long meeting of ASEAN leaders that he hosted in Manila also made no direct mention of his country’s landmark arbitration victory against China last year.

A vague reference to the ruling was removed from a part of the communique that discussed the long-seething territorial conflicts and moved elsewhere in the document.

The changes were apparent based on a previous draft of the communique seen by reporters.

A foreign diplomat based in Manila said that the Philippines circulated a stronger draft statement to other ASEAN members, which was backed by countries like Vietnam.

Other governments made suggestions, but Duterte, as ASEAN chairman this year, could decide how to shape the language of the regional bloc’s “chairman’s statement,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.

China and ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, along with Taiwan, have overlapping claims to territory in the South China Sea.

ASEAN, which makes decisions by consensus, has previously struggled to come up with statements on the issue, with Duterte’s predecessor often pushing for a tougher tone against China and getting pushback from Cambodia and Laos, unwilling to upset their largest trading partner and most important economic benefactor.

China has dismissed and ignored the arbitration ruling handed down in July last year, which invalidated most of its historic claims to almost all of the South China Sea.

Since taking office in June last year, Duterte has taken a much softer stance on China and the disputes than his predecessor.

That was reflected in yesterday’s watered-down communique, which three Philippine officials said came at the request of Chinese diplomats in Manila.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

Former Philippine officials who dealt with the disputes say Duterte’s concessions to China could weaken the ability of the Philippines and other ASEAN members to seek Chinese compliance to the arbitration ruling and curb Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior.

“Our government, in its desire to fully and quickly accommodate our aggressive northern neighbor may have left itself negotiating a perilous road with little or no room to rely on brake power and a chance to shift gears if necessary,” former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario said.

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