Duterte says code of conduct least of US concern

The South China Sea/West Philippine Sea. (SCSN image)

President Rodrigo Duterte revealed on Friday that the conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea was the “least” of the United States’ concerns – an observation he made during his bilateral meeting with Premier Li Keqiang in the Chinese capital of Beijing.

The President – who is in China for a four-day official visit – said that he had received “many requests” regarding the progress of the formulation of the code of conduct, a set of rules being negotiated by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) aimed at preventing disputes from escalating into an armed conflict.

“The biggest urgency really comes from the Western world and I would like to tell you now, in front [of the] media and all, that the passage of the code of conduct by China and everyone is the least concern of America,” said Duterte.

The Philippines is the coordinator of the ASEAN-China dialogue until 2021.

It can be recalled that US and China are at odds over the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, where Beijing has turned several former reefs into artificial islands with military facilities, runways and surface to air missiles.

And while the US is not a party in the dispute, it had declared that it was in its national interest to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the contested waters where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims — but which was claimed nearly in its entirety by China.

Meantime, Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said that Duterte and China President Xi Jinping on Thursday have discussed the progress on the negotiations for the sea code, which the Philippine leader said would contribute in the resolution of conflicts in the South China Sea.

“Chinese President Xi agreed with President Duterte that there is a need for the formulation of the code of conduct and it should be crafted within the last remaining years of President Duterte,” said Panelo.

But the Chinese President maintained China’s position that it did not recognize the Philippines’ arbitration victory on their maritime dispute even as Duterte told Xi the decision that struck down China’s expansive claim to the strategic waterway was “final, binding and not subject to appeal.”

“Both President Duterte and President Xi agreed that while their variant positions will have to remain, their differences, however, need not derail nor diminish the amity between the two countries,” said Panelo.