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The Future of Asia 2019

Duterte presses Xi to fast-track South China Sea rules

Philippine leader vents frustration over 'flashpoint' during speech in Tokyo

Philippine President  Rodrigo Duterte goes off script in his speech at Nikkei's Future of Asia conference in Tokyo on May 31. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

TOKYO -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday called on Chinese President Xi Jinping to hammer out a code of conduct for the South China Sea, warning the disputed waterway is increasingly becoming a potential "flashpoint" for conflict.

Duterte went off script in a speech at Nikkei's Future of Asia conference to vent frustration over tensions in the sea. Beijing claims large portions of waters that the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam insist are rightfully theirs.

"I love China," Duterte said. "It has helped us, but it behooves upon us to ask: Is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?"

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are in the process of crafting a maritime code, in an effort to manage the tensions and avoid an armed clash. Duterte said the code could be finished within two years, but some diplomats in the region have previously accused China of delaying the effort.

"I am sad and bewildered -- not angry -- because I cannot do anything," Duterte said. "But I just hope China would come up with a [code] soon and somebody should reach out to the U.S., because if you leave it to them to talk, nothing will happen."

The U.S., France and the U.K. have all challenged China's claims by sending ships through the South China Sea, drawing Beijing's ire. Duterte said that "the longer it takes" to agree on a code, the greater the chance the sea will become a "flashpoint for trouble."

"[They are] not testing water temperature, my God," he said. They are "really testing [who] fires the first shot."

Early in his presidency, Duterte set aside the maritime issue to foster better relations with China, but the presence of over 200 Chinese ships near Philippine-controlled areas around the Spratly Islands earlier this year was difficult to ignore.

"We are friends with China, and I would not want to impose my own last words," he said. "But if I get a chance to visit Beijing again, I will try to talk to President Xi Jinping."

At a summit with Xi in Beijing last month, Duterte raised the issue, as well as Manila's 2016 arbitration victory that invalidated China's claims to the sea. Xi only reiterated China's expansive claims and the fact that his government did not recognize the arbitration decision.

Duterte also lamented seemingly ineffective global efforts to combat climate change. He then invited investors to come to the Philippines, touting a country that is safer because of his bloody war on drugs.

The president was able to deliver only half of his prepared remarks -- wherein he called for a resolution of the U.S.-China trade war -- because he was due to attend a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Nikkei staff writer Wataru Suzuki contributed to this report.

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