MANILA The foreign minister of the Philippines expressed doubt on Wednesday that a maritime sovereignty dispute with China could be resolved "during our lifetime", so it was better to set it aside, engage Beijing and avoid an armed confrontation.
In a defence of President Rodrigo Duterte's decision not to push China to abide by an international arbitration ruling that went in Manila's favour last year, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said there was an impasse that neither side could break, so it was better to maximise benefits from Beijing instead.
During questioning by senators at his confirmation hearing, Yasay said China's stance and strategic objectives in the South China Sea meant a resolution was unlikely.
"I do not believe personally ... that this will be resolved soon, I believe that maybe perhaps it will not be resolved during our lifetime, but the option is not war, that we engage ourselves forcibly to assert our claims," Yasay said.
"I am not saying this in categorical terms ... but now, as you ask me this question, on the basis of what I know and on the basis of pronouncements that have been made, I am not as optimistic."
Duterte has turned Philippine foreign policy upside down by making overtures towards rival China to attract its trade, tourists and infrastructure investment. Yasay said the new approach was to capitalise on a "convergence of our interests".
His remarks came a day after he chaired a meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers, who expressed "grave concern" over China putting weapons systems on some of its manmade islands in the South China Sea.
China is close to completing almost two dozen structures on those islets that appear designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles, two U.S. officials told Reuters.
It was not clear whether the Southeast Asian countries were aware of that development when they met on Tuesday in Boracay.
Asked at his hearing if the Philippines owned the disputed islands it claims, Yasay said that would have "no legal basis".
He said the last year's arbitration award in The Hague ruled on what features fell within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, but made no decision on sovereignty.
"Even as they have ruled in our favour overwhelmingly, this territory continues to be international waters," he said.
"We have to prove it (ownership) in the appropriate international tribunal."
However, he said the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of the Philippines was not in dispute and in the event of an encroachment by China, there would be a forceful defence, and support from the U.S. military as guaranteed in a 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with Washington.
"That will be the action where we will have to make sure we will be asserting ourselves, defending ourselves, even using force if necessary," he said.
(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)