Trump arrived in the Philippines on Sunday for a series of meetings on regional security affairs hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. A key discussion point over the next two days will be how to lower tensions in the South China Sea, a key shipping lane that contains oil and gas reserves.
“I am a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator,” Trump said earlier Sunday in Hanoi ahead of a meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. “If I can be of help in any way, let me know.”
It was unclear if the offhand remark signaled a more proactive U.S. role in finding a solution to one of Asia’s biggest flashpoints. Trump has primarily focused his attention on North Korea’s nuclear program, a shift from the Obama administration’s more aggressive stance against China’s activities in the South China Sea.
While the U.S. doesn’t take a position on territorial disputes, it has criticized China for land reclamation and other moves to assert control over areas also claimed in part by Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries. Quang didn’t answer directly when asked later about Trump’s offer to mediate at a joint press briefing in Hanoi.
“I have shared my thoughts with President Donald Trump on the recent developments in this area,” he said, adding that Vietnam wanted to settle disputes through “peaceful negotiations” in accordance with international law.
‘Kind and Generous’
The Philippines welcomed Trump’s offer, though officials said that any effort would need to be coordinated among other countries in the region.
Trump’s offer “is a very kind and generous offer because he is a good mediator,” Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters in Manila. “He is the master of the art of the deal.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is scheduled to meet Trump formally on Monday, warned that a war over the waterway would devastate the region.
Duterte said on Sunday that Chinese President Xi Jinping told him a day earlier in a meeting in Vietnam that he also didn’t want to “waste the lives of my countrymen for a useless war that cannot be won by anyone.” Relations between China and the Philippines have opened a new chapter after Duterte’s visit in October, China’s official Xinhua News Agency quoted Xi as saying after the meeting.
‘Better Left Untouched’
“The South China Sea is better left untouched,” Duterte said. “Nobody can afford to go to war.”
China opposes U.S. involvement in resolving the disputes, preferring to settle them through one-on-one talks with other nations. In recent years, the country has disrupted oil-and-gas exploration by the Philippines and Vietnam in areas that it claims.
The 10-nation Asean on Monday is set to announce the start of negotiations with China on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, the Philippines said in a statement. The talks have made little progress since the nations agreed formally to work toward a code of conduct in 2002.
Trump is set to head back to the U.S. on Tuesday. Hundreds of people protested his arrival in Manila on Sunday, with leftist groups pledging to burn American flags.