MANILA -- Following bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping the previous day, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Nov. 12 that a territorial dispute in the South China Sea between China and five Asian countries, including the Philippines, was "better left untouched."
"Today, China is the No. 1 economic power and we have to be friends," Duterte told a business gathering in Manila. He had just flown back from the Vietnamese city of Danang where heads of state, including Xi, had gathered for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Duterte quoted Xi as having told him: "If you want to preserve the lives of the Filipinos, then as President of China I want to save lives. I do not waste the lives of my countrymen for a useless war that cannot be won by anyone."
Since he took office last year, Duterte has been working to ease tensions with China. He has drastically softened the government's stance against Beijing regarding territorial claims in the disputed waters, pivoting from the position of his predecessor former President Benigno Aquino, who brought the issue to an international court of arbitration in 2013. Manila won the case in 2016, although Beijing rejected the ruling.
While Duterte has pivoted towards China, Vietnam remains a vocal opponent. Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have territorial claims in the South China Sea. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has challenged China to allow free navigation in the disputed waters.
When Trump met with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on his visit to Hanoi on Nov. 12, he said that he was willing to mediate the issue. The U.S. president said he [Trump] would be a "very good" arbitrator and mediator.
As this year's chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Manila will be hosting the ASEAN summit that kicks off Nov. 13. Leaders from the 10-nation bloc will gather to discuss trade and security issues in the region, and the South China Sea question is expected to be on the table too. ASEAN and China in August adopted a non-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, although claimants such as Vietnam had urged for legal commitment.