President Rodrigo Duterte, who is expected to attend a two-day forum in China this week, could raise the issue of Beijing’s encroachment in Philippine-claimed areas in the South China Sea during a meeting with his counterpart Xi Jinping, an official said Monday.
This comes two weeks after Duterte warned China to stay away from areas controlled by Manila in the disputed sea region. He said he was prepared to send troops if necessary following an announcement by his government that Chinese ships had been spotted near Pag-asa island within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo had said that the presence of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea – the Philippine name for the South China Sea – could be brought up while Duterte was in China.
“My educated guess is since we have already raised that issue, they may respond to that during a bilateral talk,” Panelo said.
Duterte was expected to meet Xi and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and could “chart the course for further development of bilateral relations,” foreign assistant secretary Meynardo Montealegre said.
“As far as the South China Sea (is concerned) … the president has always been saying that we will stick to Philippine interests and positions, but as I said, I cannot comment on the specific discussion,” Montealegre said.
While in China, Duterte is expected to sign several cooperation agreements with Beijing during an international conference on One Belt, One Road running Thursday through Saturday. These include agreements in education, anti-corruption and drug rehabilitation programs, among others, Montealegre said.
He said Xi invited Duterte along with 39 other world leaders and heads of international organizations. Under the One Belt, One Road plan, China envisions linking Beijing with Asia, Europe and Africa by building massive highways, railways, ports and other infrastructure as it establishes itself as an economic powerhouse.
Since assuming the presidency in 2016, Duterte has sought closer ties to China rather than with the Philippines’ traditional ally, the United States.
In an effort to court the Chinese government, Duterte traveled to Beijing for a state visit shortly after taking office and has welcomed major Chinese firms to the Philippines.
In 2017, Li visited the Philippines and oversaw the signing of at least 14 deals, including a donation valued at 1.1 billion pesos (U.S. $21.6 million) for the rehabilitation of the southern city of Marawi that was destroyed during a five-month siege by fighters linked to the Islamic State.
Duterte shelved a court ruling on the South China Sea that favored Manila but was bitterly ignored by Beijing. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China had no legal basis claiming historical rights to the waterway.
China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims to the maritime region.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Manila contributed to this report.