Philippines' Duterte gives China free pass over sea row

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte failed to condemn China's push to control most of the disputed South China Sea on Sunday after hosting a regional summit, handing Beijing a political victory.

Duterte released a chairman's statement a day after hosting the one-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders' meeting that ignored an international ruling, championed by his predecessor, outlawing China's sweeping claims to the strategically important waterway.

"We took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area," said the 25-page statement without any mention of what these were, which countries were responsible, and which heads of state raised them.

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 on them.

ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the sea, but China insists it has sovereign rights over nearly all of it.

Ahead of the summit Duterte said the Philippines and other nations were helpless to stop the island building, so there was no point discussing it at diplomatic events such as Saturday's summit.

Additionally China, which is not a member of the 10-nation ASEAN, had lobbied intensely through its ambassador to Manila to water down references to the issue in the chairman's statement, diplomats earlier told AFP.

The Philippines, under previous president Benigno Aquino, had pushed hard at ASEAN summits for the bloc to voice its strong opposition to Chinese expansionism, and official statements at those events often reflected that.

Aquino also filed the case at the international tribunal. But the ruling against China came after Duterte took power last year.

An earlier draft of the chairman's statement seen by AFP cited a reference to "respect for legal and diplomatic processes".

Another version also contained a call, championed by Vietnam according to diplomats, to cease "land reclamation and militarisation" of the sea.

Both references were absent in Sunday's final statement.

Duterte's statement "reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and overflight" in and above the South China Sea.

It also reiterated the importance of "exercising self-restraint in the conduct activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation", and of "pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat of or use of force".