As the US continues to ramp up its criticisms of China’s activity in the South China Sea, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is cozying up ever closer to Beijing.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Singapore, Duterte criticized the US for provoking China, while shrugging his shoulders at China’s expanding presence on islands also claimed by the Philippines.
“China is already in possession (of the South China Sea). It’s now in their hands,” he was quoted by the Straits Times as saying.
“So why do you have to create frictions… that will prompt a response from China?” he said. “China is there… That’s a reality, and America and everybody should realize that they are there.”
Duterte specifically called for the US to let China and ASEAN countries decide how to resolve territorial disputes while criticizing US-led freedom of navigation exercises.
“Everything’s been excellent between China and the rest of Asean, except for the fact that there’s friction between Western nations and China,” he said.
Duterte’s comments were a rebuke of US Vice-President Mike Pence’s speech at the summit, during which he said that “empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific,” in a veiled reference to China.
“We will defend freedom of the seas and skies. This is especially important in the South China Sea,” Pence said, according to his prepared remarks released by the White House.
“Let me be clear: China’s militarization and territorial expansion in the South China Sea is illegal and dangerous. It threatens the sovereignty of many nations and endangers the prosperity of the world,” he said.
Since taking office, Duterte has taken measures to scale down military cooperation between the US and the Philippines, which are still bound by a treaty alliance. Meanwhile, he has worked to strengthen ties with Beijing, and his administration is currently in talks with Beijing on a joint oil exploration deal.