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MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines followed up a summit of Southeast Asian leaders by releasing a final communique Sunday that removed mention of international concerns over China's "militarization" of newly built islands in the disputed South China Sea in a major concession to Beijing.
The 25-page statement issued by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte following the daylong meeting of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations he hosted in Manila also made no direct mention of his country's landmark arbitration victory against China last year. A vague reference to the ruling was removed from a part of the communique that discussed the long-seething territorial conflicts and moved elsewhere in the document.
The changes were apparent based on a previous draft of the communique seen by The Associated Press. A foreign diplomat based in Manila told the AP that the Philippines circulated a stronger draft statement to other ASEAN member states, which was backed by countries like Vietnam.
Other governments made suggestions but Duterte, as ASEAN chairman this year, could decide how to shape the language of the regional bloc's "chairman's statement," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.
China and ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, along with Taiwan, have overlapping claims to territory in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which billions of dollars in world trade passes each year. The waters are also important fishing grounds and are believed to have undersea deposits of oil and gas.
ASEAN, which makes decisions by consensus, has previously struggled to come up with statements on the issue, with Duterte's predecessor often pushing for a tougher tone against China and getting pushback from members, like Beijing's allies Cambodia and Laos, unwilling to upset their largest trading partner and most important economic benefactor.
China has dismissed and ignored last July's arbitration ruling, which invalidated most of its historic claims to almost all of the South China Sea. China has long argued that the territorial disputes have nothing to do with its relationship with ASEAN and should be settled through bilateral talks.
Since taking office last June, Duterte has taken a much softer stance on China and the disputes than his predecessor. That was reflected in Sunday's watered-down communique, which three Philippine officials told The AP came at the request of Chinese diplomats in Manila. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the press.
Chinese Embassy officials in Manila were not immediately available for comment.
Former Philippine officials who dealt with the disputes say Duterte's concessions to China could weaken the ability of the Philippines and other ASEAN member states to seek Chinese compliance to the arbitration ruling and curb Beijing's increasingly assertive behavior in the disputed waters.
"Our government, in its desire to fully and quickly accommodate our aggressive northern neighbor may have left itself negotiating a perilous road with little or no room to rely on brake power and a chance to shift gears if necessary," former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.
Del Rosario, then under President Benigno Aquino III, spearheaded the filing of the arbitration complaint against China in 2013.
Duterte has said he prefers to warm once-frosty ties with and secure infrastructure funding from Beijing. Still he has said he will raise the ruling with China at some point during his six-year term.
A draft of the ASEAN communique seen by the AP ahead of the summit mentioned concerns about China's "land reclamation" or construction of new islands in the South China Sea and its "militarization" of the disputed region but did not mention China by name. That has been a standard policy in previous ASEAN statements.
"Non-mention of The Hague ruling would be a diplomatic triumph for China," said former Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez, referring to the European tribunal that issued the landmark decision.
"It might embolden them to advance some more in their South China Sea master plan," said Golez, citing fears that China may also turn the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines into another island outpost.