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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, shakes hands with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte before the opening ceremony of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Manila on Nov. 13. (Pool)   © AP

South China Sea dispute 'toned down' at ASEAN meeting

China shuns Trump's offer to mediate on rival maritime claims

MANILA -- Competing claims over territory in the South China Sea, which have long held center stage at meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have been getting less attention at the current ASEAN summit and in related meetings being held in the Philippine capital through Tuesday.

On Monday, the ASEAN-China summit resolved that discussions to draw up a code of conduct for the disputed waters will start in early 2018. The code aims to reduce tensions between China, which has been aggressively building up islands in the strategic waterway, and ASEAN members that have competing claims.

"We hope the talks on the code of conduct will bolster mutual understanding and trust," Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the summit, according to a transcript released by China's foreign ministry on Tuesday.

The discussion was apparently led by China. The leaders were unable to come to terms on whether to make the code legally binding -- something claimants such as Vietnam are demanding. The chairman's statement from the discussions has not been published as of Tuesday evening local time.

China's growing economic influence in the region in line with its Belt and Road initiative is forcing some claimants, such as the Philippines and Malaysia, to shift to a more pro-China stance. Although the South China Sea was brought up in most of the meetings, China is getting less pushback.

"It seems that the Philippines doesn't want to discuss the South China Sea issue so much," Retno Marsudi, Indonesia's foreign minister, told reporters in Manila on Monday, when asked about how the matter was being handled in the series of meetings taking place in the Philippine capital. Indonesia is not a territorial claimant, but has competing claims with China over fishing rights in the waters.

"In general, the South China sea issue seems to have been toned down in this summit," Retno said. 

The Philippines, this year's ASEAN chair, has drastically weakened its stance against China as President Rodrigo Duterte emphasizes building "friendship" with the country.

"The South China Sea is better left untouched," Duterte told a business conference in Manila on Sunday. "Nobody can afford to go to war."

The Philippines has conflicting claims with China. Until Duterte took office, the country was strongly against Beijing building and militarizing artificial islands in the waters.

U.S. Navy F18 fighter jets are parked on the deck of aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson during a routine exercise in South China Sea, March 3, 2017.   © AP

During the East Asia Summit on Tuesday, most of the 18 countries touched on the South China Sea issue and several members raised concerns about recent developments and called for demilitarization, according to a senior Japanese government source. But no participant brought up the international tribunal ruling of last year that denied China's claims in the waters, he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump also stayed quiet on the matter, making it clear that trade was the highest priority of his visit. Manila was the final stop on the president's lengthy Asian tour.

Trump did not make any comments on the South China Sea at the U.S.-ASEAN meeting, Philippine presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told reporters in Manila on Monday. Nor was it raised during bilateral talks between Trump and Duterte, he said.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. had been challenging China in the South China Sea with freedom of navigation patrols. China has responded that countries outside the region should not interfere in the dispute.

During a bilateral visit to Hanoi on Sunday, Trump told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang he would be willing to act as mediator in the South China Sea dispute, if needed. Vietnam has overlapping claims with China, and has become one of China's staunchest opponents as the Philippines shifts to a softer approach.

On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang was asked to comment on Trump's offer. "We hope that countries outside the region respect the efforts made by regional countries to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and play a constructive role in this regard," he told reporters in Beijing.

China appears to be softening its own stance. Premier Li reportedly told his counterparts in Manila that China will assure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted Li as saying that China is interested in safeguarding peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the waters "more than any other country in the world."

In the Monday's draft of the ASEAN chairman's statement, to be issued after the two-day summit ends on Tuesday, the section on the South China Sea had been left blank. 

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