MANILA, Philippines — President Donald Trump offered to mediate in the South China Sea disputes Sunday and his Chinese counterpart played down concerns over Beijing’s military buildup and the prospects of war in the contested waters.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke separately about the territorial rifts ahead of an annual summit of Southeast Asian nations with the U.S., China and other global players in Manila, where the disputes are expected to get the spotlight, along with North Korea’s nuclear threat and terrorism.
“I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator,” Trump said during a news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi before flying to Manila for the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Trump’s offer faces major obstacles. For one, China has steadfastly opposed what it calls U.S. meddling in the disputes and has balked at the U.S. Navy’s incursions into what Beijing considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea.
Washington is not among the claimants to the waterway, among the busiest in the world, but it has declared it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of the disputes. Allies back an active American military presence in the disputed waters to serve as a counterweight to China’s increasingly assertive actions, including the construction of seven man-made islands equipped with military installations.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Xi assured him of China’s peaceful intentions in the strategic waterway, where Beijing, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have overlapping claims, during a meeting in Danang, Vietnam, where they attended the annual APEC summit this week.
Duterte said that when he raised concerns over China’s increasing military capability in the South China Sea, Xi replied: “No, it’s nothing.”
“He acknowledged that war cannot be promoted by anybody, (that) it would only mean destruction for all of us,” Duterte said in a news conference after flying back to Manila. “He knows that if he goes to war, everything will blow up.”
The Chinese leader, however, would not back down on Beijing’s territorial claim, Duterte said and justified his decision not to immediately demand Chinese compliance with a ruling by a U.N.-linked tribunal that invalidated China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea on historical grounds.
China has dismissed that ruling as a “sham” and did not participate in the arbitration case that the Philippines filed during the time of Duterte’s predecessor. Duterte took steps to thaw frosty relations with China after he won the presidency last year.
“If you go to the negotiating table and you start with the statement ‘that I am here to claim validity of our ownership,’ you’re wasting your time. They will not talk about it,” Duterte said of China.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.