Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has criticised the US for not taking early action against China when it first began the construction of the man-made islands in the South China Sea. During a meeting with the US ambassador Sung Kim, the straight-talking leader reportedly questioned him about Washington's decision to remain inactive despite evidence of Beijing's military plans in the disputed waters.

Duterte on Wednesday (29 March) said he was surprised by the US' response, or lack thereof to the issue. "Why did you not send the armada of the 7th Fleet," the president asked the ambassador, referring to the US naval fleet based in Japan.

"Had America really wanted to avoid trouble, early on... why did you not send the armada of the 7th Fleet, which is stationed there in the Pacific? You just make a U-turn and go there and tell them right on their face, stop it."

Kim, who only arrived in Manila in December 2016, to take up his role as ambassador, said that he was unable to offer an answer, according to Duterte.

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently released new surveillance data indicating that construction of three of the Chinese man-made islands is close to completion. According to satellite photos, runways, aircraft hangers, radar sites and hardened surface-to-air missile shelters have either been finished or are soon to be.

Despite China's push for control over the region, Duterte continues to support the Philippines' neighbour. On the eve of his 72<sup>nd birthday (on 28 March), the president met with Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, following which he told an audience in Oriental Mindoro that increase in agricultural exports was thanks to China's President Xi Jinping and "also the Chinese people, (as) they are really good. They are faithful friends".

"We are at our best level of friendship with China after I went there," the leader said in his speech in the northern agricultural province.

President Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte said that Philippines and China were at a 'best level of friendship' following his October visit to Beijing REUTERS/Erik De Castro