Philippines President Duterte says it is useless to protest against China's artificial island building

The 71-year-old leader says he would not raise the tribunal ruling during the ASEAN events this week.

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday that there is no point protesting against the construction of Chinese artificial island building in disputed areas of the South China Sea because it could not be stopped.

Ahead of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit this week, Duterte made the comments and confirmed that he would not use the event to pressurise China on its expansionism in the strategically vital waters.

"It cannot be an issue anymore. It's already there. What would be the purpose also of discussing it if you cannot do anything," Duterte told AFP.

China has been turning reefs and shoals in areas of the sea claimed by the Philippines and other nations into artificial islands, and installing military facilities there. The construction work has been criticized by the United States a number of times. The US has also warned against militarisation in the waterway where US$5 trillion in annual trade passes.

China's reclamation has also rattled other claimants, which include ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Benigno Aquino, Duterte's predecessor, had challenged China by asking a UN-backed tribunal to outlaw Beijing's sweeping claims to the sea and its reclamation work. Last year, in July, the tribunal ruled largely in favour of the Philippines.

However Duterte, who came to office shortly before the ruling was issued, adopted a pragmatic approach to dealing with China in a bid to win billions of dollars worth of trade and aid.

On Thursday, Duterte blamed the superpower for failing to stop China's reclamation activities. "Who can stop that? Us? It's only America. But how come they allowed that to happen," Duterte said. He added that the United States could have used its navy to stop the reclamation work years ago.

The 71-year-old leader said he would not raise the ruling during the ASEAN events this week. "I will skip the arbitral ruling. It is not an issue here in the ASEAN," he said. "It's only between China and the Philippines so I will skip that."

According to Duterte, he would prefer to discuss a code of conduct on the South China Sea. He expressed optimism a code of conduct would ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the waters. "The code of conduct at sea is another story. It must be taken up," Duterte said referring to the ASEAN summit. Philippine diplomats have said a "framework" code of conduct might be completed by June.

However, analysts believe that China has been purposely delaying negotiations on a code to use the time to build its artificial islands and take control of other contested features. The code was proposed nearly 15 years ago.