Despite international and local pressure for President Rodrigo Duterte to raise the Hague ruling on the South China Sea in the four-day ASEAN Summit in Manila, the 72-year-old Philippine leader instead defended China.
Speaking at the 30th annual Summit which ended on Saturday, he explained before the ASEAN press that there was no point discussing the U.N. ruling in the summit since the issue was only between the Philippines and China.
This came to many surprise to ASEAN leaders because the Philippines had been hosting the previous administration’s Spratly’s Claimants Meeting in Manila to discuss measures to address China’s growing infrastructure in the disputed waters. Other ASEAN countries that claim ownership of the disputed waters are Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
Duterte said during a press briefing what was the purpose of discussing when you cannot do anything about it.
However, Philippine senator Panfilo Lacson also told ASEAN media that the nation should not miss out on the opportunity provided by the ASEAN summit.
Indonesian President Joko Jokowi Widodo had a different view. He told Rappler, an online Philippine media outlet, that the only way ASEAN can stand up to the Asian giant China is if member nations take a “common stand” on the dispute in the South China Sea.
The U.S. government has also issued calls on China to recognize the Hague Court ruling favoring the Philippines claim over its 200-exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, but China has rejected repeated calls from the U.S., instead suggesting that the best way to address the disputed waters is through bilateral talks with the Philippines.
The U.S. has been a military ally of the Philippines since 1952, but when Duterte assumed the Philippine presidency last year he surprised his countrymen by announcing that he will begin to realign with China and Russia.
The South China Sea is a trading route of commercial shipping vessels with trading value of $5 trillion. The disputed sea could also hold 17 billion tons of oil reserves, aside from its rich maritime and aquatic natural resources.
In a related development, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also sought the support of ASEAN leaders to address piracy in the ASEAN region. He addressed a group of ASEAN business and government leaders on the need to promote prosperity in all sectors due to the rise of extremism in the region.
Malaysians sailors and fishermen have often been the victims of piracy in the Philippine-Malaysia maritime border due to the increasing aggression of the Abu Sayyaf Group, an ISIS linked, militant group based in the Southern Philippines involved in kidnapping and piracy.
The ASEAN countries have a combined population of over 600 million with a $6 trillion economy. The region is one of the world’s fastest growing sub regions in terms of economy, and Najib further suggested that economic growth that is distributed among its citizens will deter the rise of radicalization.
“We know that those who see no hope in their own societies are more prone to the siren calls of terrorists who can exploit their vulnerability,” Najib said, reports Rappler.
The ASEAN Summit is held annually to provide Southeast Asian leaders a venue to meet on common issues of interest – economy, security, jobs, education and climate change, among other topics.
This is also the time when ASEAN ministers sign important agreements on cooperation. The ASEAN member-countries are Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar.