Duterte says Beijing will guarantee ‘safe passage’ in sea

MANILA (ANN Desk) – Asean chair the Philippines plays down dispute at summit, Trump’s offer to mediate gains no traction 

The South China Sea dispute took centre stage as world leaders gathered for the 31st Asean summit and related meetings on Monday. The Association of Southeast Asia Nations will on Monday announce the resumption of negotiations with Beijing on a code of conduct in the sea. Begun in 2002, the talks have made little progress. 
Four Asean members, including summit host and Asean chair the Philippines, are embroiled in territory disputes with Beijing, which claims almost all of the sea. China has been conducting a programme of island-building on disputed rocks and atolls, heightening concern over freedom of passage in a major global shipping lane carrying $5 trillion of goods each year.  
US President Donald Trump on Sunday offered to mediate the dispute, which Asean declared in a draft statement on Monday was “calmer now, [but] we cannot take the current progress for granted.”
“I am a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator,” Trump said on Sunday in Hanoi ahead of a meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. “If I can be of help in any way, let me know.” Trump landed in Manila on Monday, on the final leg of his Asia tour. The US navy has conducted regular freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea as tensions rise over Beijing’s assertiveness. 
Trump’s remark may signal a more proactive US role in finding a solution to one of Asia’s biggest flashpoints.
Asean unity has faltered in the face of the dispute, which China insists should be resolved on a bilateral basis.    
On Sunday, visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly agreed to work with Vietnam on a code of conduct and joint exploitation of oil and gas reserves. The rapprochement came after tensions between Hanoi and Beijing, which parked an oil rig in Vietnamese waters in 2014. 
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also played down the dispute, suggesting leaders should not discuss the South China Sea. 
“The South China Sea is better left untouched, nobody can afford to go to war. It can ill-afford a violent confrontation,” he said. Duterte added that Beijing is guaranteeing “safe passage” for all nations using the South China Sea.
The Philippine leader has grown closer to China since he took office last year.
Asean echoed the conciliatory tone in its statement to the Asean Summit on Monday:   
“It is important that we cooperate to maintain peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the SCS [South China Sea], in accordance with international law,” it said.
“It is in our collective interest to avoid miscalculations that could lead to escalation of tensions.”
Taiwan and four Asean member-countries – Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei – dispute China’s claim to almost the entire sea.
Leaders from China, the United States and seven other nations are joining Asean at their annual summit.

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