The Philippines will not seek U.S. military assistance against China to contain its expansionist moves in the South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte said, describing Beijing as a “friend.”
In a talk with reporters in Vietnam, where he is attending an annual summit of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders, Duterte said Thursday that his country could not antagonize China even if the United States suggested it would help in the dispute.
“No, I will not ask military help to wage war against China,” Duterte said, when asked to comment if Manila would ask for America’s help during his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Manila on Monday.
“China is a friend. A friend in need is a friend indeed. You will not be able to force them out there except to go to war,” Duterte said, according to transcripts of the exchange sent to reporters in Manila on Friday.
He said the Philippines was not “ready for that.”
“In the fullness of God’s time, maybe we’ll have an interesting arrangement there,” the president said. “But it would depend on the people of China, how far they would go. But we are asking for the minimum.”
He said that he was willing to reason with China, which by now “should realize that they have really militarized the area.”
Duterte is this year’s chairman of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose leaders are to hold a summit in Manila next week after APEC.
Four ASEAN members – the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam – have overlapping claims to islands in the South China Sea, as well as Taiwan and China. The varying claims present a potential flashpoint of conflict, since trillions of dollars in global trade passes through the vital water way.
ASEAN leaders are expected to introduce the South China Sea item again in Manila next week, with China earlier agreeing to begin negotiations for a code of conduct governing actions in the disputed sea region.
But while all the claimants have agreed to maintain the “status quo” in the volatile region, China has continued to fortify islands it claims and built land features, according to defense officials.
On Wednesday, Manila’s defense chief, Delfin Lorenzana, confirmed that China had also asked the Philippines to stop construction of a hut in a sandbar near the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, also known as Thitu. Duterte immediately ordered the military to stop the building activity, Lorenzana had said.
On Friday, Duterte emphasized that agreeing to the code was “very important.”
“I’m not criticizing China. I’m just telling them that it is high time for us to have that Code of Conduct of the Sea,” Duterte said.
Duterte is to meet Trump on Monday at the presidential palace in Manila, a much anticipated meeting between a Philippine leader widely criticized for his drugs war and his equally outspoken U.S. counterpart who had praised his tough stance on crime.