Philippine officials on Monday were preparing a red carpet welcome for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, saying the country wanted to take the bilateral relationship to a higher level of cooperation, despite a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Xi is to arrive on Tuesday for a 24-hour state visit during which he is expected to hold an expanded meeting with Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte. Last week, President Duterte told his ASEAN counterparts that Beijing had no intention of causing trouble in the region despite overlapping claims to the resource-rich sea.
“The president and the entire Filipino nation look forward to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s forthcoming visit to the Philippines,” said Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s spokesman, adding that it marked a turning point in relations between the two nations.
Both leaders were to have an “extended bilateral meeting” on Tuesday afternoon, sources said. They said the leaders could reach an agreement on a proposed sharing deal with China that would give the Philippines a 60 percent-40 percent split on resources recovered from the Reed Bank.
The Reed Bank lies within Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea and is believed to lie atop vast untapped natural resources. Analysts have said that joint exploration in the area would go against the Philippine constitution.
Xi’s visit here “marks an opportunity to further strengthen and sustain our bilateral relations,” Panelo said.
“We laud President Xi for China’s continued efforts to promote peace and stability in our region, through dialogues and consultations in handling the South China Sea issue, as we share his aspiration to bring our nations’ relationship to a higher level of collaboration,” he added.
On Wednesday, before Xi departs, he is expected to meet with leaders of the Philippine Congress as well as the local Chinese community.
Panelo stressed that “amity solves international disputes” and forges a stronger alliance between the two countries cooperating to combat other problems such as terrorism, extremism and criminality.
“The Philippines’ and China’s shared hopes for their citizens continue to pave the way for closer bonds between the two nations,” Panelo said.
He said Duterte’s “cautious, pragmatic and diplomatic yet independent foreign policy” could lead to more areas of cooperation between both nations.
Xi’s trip would be the first state visit to the Philippines and the first of its kind by a Chinese leader since 2005. It is to reciprocate Duterte’s state visit to China shortly after he became president two years ago.
China, according to Panelo, is considered a top trading partner of the Philippines and one of the country’s largest sources of tourist dollars.
South China Sea disputes
At an annual meeting of Southeast Asian leaders in Singapore last week, Duterte said relations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were excellent, but noted there was friction between Beijing and Washington.
He said ASEAN and China should work swiftly toward a code of conduct to govern actions in the disputed South China Sea region or risk a miscalculation that could lead to confrontations.
Duterte has also said China was already in possession of the disputed waters and wanted Beijing to set a route for claimant states to take to avoid confrontations.
“So you are there, you are in possession, you occupy it, tell us what route shall we take and what kind of behavior,” Duterte had said.
Xi’s visit is expected to be met with a huge protest by fishermen who have faced harassment in the South China Sea, and nationalist groups that have accused Duterte of selling out the country to China.
The present government has “squandered the most solid legal ground it has against China in the South China Sea conflict,” said Sen. Leila de Lima, a Duterte critic.
She blamed the president for wasting a legal victory in 2016 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of Manila over what she termed as China’s “outrageous incursions.”
“This is Duterte’s most inexcusable act on the West Philippine Sea dispute, more inexcusable than sleeping on the job,” De Lima said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.