Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is on Saturday set to weaken Southeast Asian resistance to Chinese expansionism in the contested South China Sea as he hosts a regional summit, diplomats said.
Duterte is expected to release a chairman's statement at the end of the one-day Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) leaders meeting that ignores an international tribunal ruling rejecting China's sweeping claims to the strategically vital waterway.
Ahead of the summit Duterte said the Philippines and other nations were helpless to stop Chinese artificial island building in areas they claimed, so there was no point protesting against it at diplomatic events such as Saturday's summit.
"It cannot be an issue anymore. It's already there. What would be the purpose also of discussing it if you cannot do anything," Duterte told reporters on Thursday.
China has been turning reefs and shoals in areas of the sea claimed by the Philippines and other nations into artificial islands, and installing military facilities there.
The United States has criticised the construction work, warning against militarisation in the waterway where $5 trillion in annual trade passes.
ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the sea, but China insists it has sovereign rights over nearly all of it, even waters approaching its neighbours' coasts.
The Philippines, under previous president Benigno Aquino, had lobbied hard at ASEAN summits for the bloc to voice its strong opposition to the Chinese expansionism, and official statements at those events often reflected that.
Aquino also filed a case at a UN-backed tribunal asking it to reject China's claims and artificial island building.
The tribunal last year ruled largely in the Philippines' favour. But the ruling came after Duterte, who favours much closer ties with China, took power.
- China win -
Duterte steadfastly refused to use the verdict to pressure China, instead pursuing warmer relations and billions of dollars' worth of trade and aid.
Duterte's chairman's statement, which is meant to reflect the views of all ASEAN leaders, will not mention the international tribunal ruling nor China directly, according to a draft obtained by AFP.
"We shared the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region," the draft statement said.
China, through its ambassador to Manila, had this week been heavily lobbying Duterte to weaken it further, and drop any reference to international law, delegates and diplomats told AFP.
China had been calling for ASEAN to remove a reference to "respect for legal and diplomatic processes", the diplomats said, adding Duterte was likely to acquiesce.
"The lobbying is quite intense. They (China) want it further watered down," one diplomat told AFP.
Filipino diplomats said the phrase was important because "legal and diplomatic processes" encompassed the entire process of the filing of the case in the tribunal until its resolution.
"In diplomatic terms it can also refer to the tribunal ruling," another diplomat said.
Filipino diplomats had fought hard for its inclusion in the previous statement as a compromise to mentioning the ruling.
An excerpt of an updated copy of the chairman's statement showed the key wording had been dropped, replaced with: "respect for the full supremacy of the law".
The ASEAN leaders are due to begin talks at 10:30 am (0230 GMT) and will conclude with a dinner in the evening.
The event is also being closely watched for how Duterte, who has shocked with curse-laden tirades against the United States and other critics of his deadly drug war, handles hosting his first major diplomatic event.
Duterte's drug war, which has claimed thousands of lives and led to warnings by rights groups about a possible crime against humanity, has been widely condemned in the West.
But he has enjoyed support from some of his Southeast Asian guests this week, including Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.