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Philippines' Duterte calls for action to reduce the risk of military conflict in the South China Sea

Key Points
  • President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines says efforts are needed to reduce the chance of military conflict in the South China Sea.
  • The issue will be a continuous "flashpoint for trouble" the longer it is left to fester, Duterte said Friday at the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo.
  • His remarks came a day after Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed similar concern at the same event.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech during the 121st founding anniversary of the Philippine army on March 20, 2018.
Ted Aljibe | AFP | Getty Images

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has called for action to reduce the chance of conflict in the South China Sea, where the United States and other countries are challenging Chinese assertions of sovereignty.

Beijing claims most of the disputed sea, parts of which are claimed by countries including the Philippines and Vietnam. China maintains that virtually the entire body of water — where trillions of dollars worth of international trade pass through each year — belongs to it. The Asian giant has fortified, expanded and militarized reefs and islets to back up its stance.

The United States and other countries which claim no territory in the region have taken issue with Beijing's position.

The U.S. Navy frequently sends ships within close distance of Chinese-held territory in the sea in what it calls displays of support for the right of freedom of navigation in international waters, angering Beijing. Navies from France and Britain have also carried out similar missions.

'Flashpoint for trouble'

During a speech Friday at the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo, Duterte said the territorial tensions were dangerous.

"It's at stress," he said of the South China Sea, adding it will be a continuous "flashpoint for trouble" the longer the issue is left to fester.

He called for the conclusion of an agreement to govern conduct in the South China Sea, which is under consideration between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China. He added that the absence of a deal is leaving an opening for outside powers to get involved.

"France, Britain, America are testing the waters," he said, apparently referring to their freedom of navigation missions. "This is not a testing of waters of temperature," he added. "It is really testing who can fire the first shot."

Duterte also blamed Beijing for its expansive claim, asking, "Is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?"

VIDEO3:1703:17
Who owns the South China Sea?

China has long maintained that islands in the South China Sea are its "inherent" territory.

The Philippine leader's comments follow remarks at the same conference by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who expressed concern on Thursday about possible military conflict between the U.S. and China in the region.

Duterte also called for what he characterized as "higher ministerial level" talks to lessen the possibility that conflict could erupt "to the barest minimum." He said that if the possibility of fighting is now at 25%, then efforts should be made to reduce it to 15%.

He also stressed that efforts must be multilateral, saying the U.S. and China can't solve territorial issues themselves.

"It will just end up in a shouting match," he added.