MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday he plans to discuss his country's territorial disputes with China, including its 2016 arbitration victory over Beijing and the tapping of potential energy resources, when he visits China this month.
Duterte did not provide other details or a clear explanation of how he plans to raise the highly divisive issues while maintaining a non-confrontational approach toward China, with which he has nurtured friendly ties and sought infrastructure funds and investment.
It would be his fifth visit to China since taking office in mid-2016, the most by any Philippine leader. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. told reporters late Wednesday that the timing of Duterte's visit and its agenda have not been finalized.
Duterte has said he will also watch the Philippine basketball team compete in the FIBA World Cup to be hosted by China later this month. He said he would also inaugurate a building built at a university in Fujian province in honor of his late mother, who was a school teacher.
"We would talk about what's the situation in the China Sea or West Philippine Sea," Duterte told reporters Thursday night, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea. He mentioned key issues related to the long-running disputes and said without elaborating, "I'm most interested in the extraction of the natural resources."
The 74-year-old leader has long been criticized by nationalists and left-wing groups for not immediately demanding Chinese compliance with a 2016 ruling by an international arbitration panel that declared China's claims to virtually the entire South China Sea invalid under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China refused to participate in the arbitration case that Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, initiated. Beijing ignored and has continued to defy the panel's ruling. Duterte has said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping of his plan to drill for oil in the disputed waters in their first meeting in Beijing in 2016 and that he was warned by Xi of potential "trouble" if he insisted.
Duterte put the issue in the backburner but promised to take it up with Xi before his six-year term as Philippine president ends in 2022. He said Thursday he would talk about the arbitration ruling when he visits China.
When asked what he would do if Xi warns him again if he raises Philippine plans to develop undersea oil and gas deposits in the offshore region, Duterte sounded ambivalent. "Then I will think about it. I will just keep it to myself first because at that stage nothing would really be a very significant development," Duterte said.
Duterte nevertheless said he would insist on Philippine claims in the disputed sea and would not accept China's position. He said a Chinese proposal for a 60%-40% sharing of energy resources in the disputed waters, with the Philippines getting 60%, was acceptable to him but he was uncertain if there was enough time to discuss that during his China visit.
Duterte complained about delays in the conclusion of a proposed code of conduct between China and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations that aims to discourage aggressive actions and prevent a shooting war in the busy Asian waterway.
"I said that's why I'm going there. They are delaying it," Duterte said, adding that he was concerned about possible miscalculations that could spark a confrontation.
Tensions intensified in the strategic waters in recent years after China turned seven disputed reefs into islands, which were later installed with runways, hangars and a missile-defense system. China has had recent disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, which also claim parts of the disputed region, as do Taiwan and Brunei.