MANILA—Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte concluded an annual meeting of Southeast Asian nations with warm words for China—the neighboring power whose territorial claims have galvanized opposition from some of the region’s smaller nations at past summits.
Mr. Duterte wrapped up meetings Tuesday describing China as gracious for agreeing to begin talks on a long-awaited code of conduct in the South China Sea.
The Philippine president had established after taking office last year that he wouldn’t challenge Chinese expansion in the disputed waters, eliminating a flashpoint that had roiled gatherings of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
This year’s Asean summit was the first to be attended by U.S. President Donald Trump. During his visit to the Philippines, the last stop on a 12-day Asia tour, Mr. Trump moved to repair a U.S. rift with Mr. Duterte, who in establishing closer ties with China also declared a “separation” from its longtime ally.
China and the U.S. were among nations that courted Asean members with promises of trade and investment at the two-day summit in Manila, which was also attended by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and leaders from Japan, Canada and other nations.
Among declarations at the summit’s conclusion on Tuesday was a commitment to advance negotiations on a free-trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, that includes the 10 Asean nations and six other states, including China.
Mr. Trump left the gathering on Air Force One before the final round of meetings.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, left, with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Saturday.Photo: ROBINSON NINAL JR./PLANET PIX/ZUMA PRESS
The U.S. under Mr. Trump has continued the Obama administration’s assertion of the right to freely navigate the seas and has stepped up patrols by U.S. warships through the areas China claims. During his Asia trip, Mr. Trump released joint statements with Philippine and Vietnamese leaders opposing militarization in the waters.
On Sunday, he had also offered to mediate in the dispute. Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Cayeteno suggested that wouldn’t be necessary, saying the Philippines was already engaged in constructive talks with China. “It’s a very kind and generous offer, because he is a good mediator, he is the master of the art of deal,” he said.
The South China Sea disputes pit several Asean members against each other and against China, which is for many their chief trading partner. China claims almost 90% of the waters, overlapping with claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
“The Philippines opted for a friendlier relationship with China” and that has benefited the entire region, Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque said on Monday.
China has changed the game in the South China Sea in recent years by building and militarizing islands in the strategic waters, which see more than $5 trillion in oceangoing trade each year. In the weeks before the Asia summits in Vietnam and the Philippines, China unveiled a new giant dredger dubbed the “magic island maker.”
Mr. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, stirred China’s wrath by taking Manila’s claim in the sea to a United Nations-linked tribunal, which concluded just after Mr. Duterte came to office in mid-2016 that there was no basis for China’s sweeping claims.
Mr. Duterte decided not to seek enforcement of the tribunal’s finding. In return, he earned pledges of billions of dollars in economic and business deals in Beijing.
Beijing had already used its allies within Asean to thwart the grouping’s required consensus for taking a position. The Philippines wasn’t the first Asean country to avoid trouble and seek reward by giving in to Chinese territorial ambitions.
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- Trump, Duterte Strike Up a Friendship, Sidestep Thorny Issues
- In Setback to U.S., Philippines Sets Aside Dispute With China (October 2016)
Mr. Duterte is “doing what China wants all the claimant countries to do: sit down and talk bilaterally,” said Ian Storey of the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Mr. Xi, who met with Mr. Duterte at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a business and economic summit last week in Vietnam, credited the Philippine president for leadership that brought improved relations between China and other claimants, Mr. Roque said.
Mr. Keqiang, the Chinese premier, said on Monday that Beijing was committed to peace and stability in the region and to starting consultations on a code of conduct, something Asean and China agreed to create more than a decade ago but has never become reality.
China’s occupation of new islands, its increasingly powerful military, its economic weight and Asean’s difficulty in presenting a united front have given Beijing the upper hand in dictating the terms.
Work between Asean and China toward a code of conduct in the South China Sea is expected to begin in earnest next year, but its utility is in doubt because countries haven’t agreed to make any of its provisions binding.
Recent moves by the U.S., Japan, India and Australia to revive a “quadrilateral security dialogue” could also leave Asean with diminished weight in regional diplomacy. Officials of the four countries met this weekend in the Philippines to set the groundwork for higher-level discussions.
The U.S. State Department said the goal was to boost security and a rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, including by supporting freedom of navigation and overflight, coordinating on counterterrorism and curtailing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
—Wenxin Fan and Jake Maxwell Watts contributed to this article.
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