Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to resolve complaints over the presence of dozens of Chinese ships near a Manila-occupied island in the South China Sea, an official said Friday.
The leaders met on the sidelines of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) forum in Beijing and agreed to press ahead with economic cooperation, noting the waterway dispute should not distract them from mutually beneficial infrastructure projects, Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
“In the course of the bilateral meeting, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte raised the issue of the West Philippine Sea, particularly the situation in Pag-asa Island,” Panelo said in a statement, using the Philippine names for the South China Sea an Thitu Island.
“Both agree that the situation can be managed by the mechanism of bilateral negotiations, but it should not affect the cooperation being undertaken by both the Philippines and China.”
Panelo said Xi stressed “the importance of good neighborliness and proper handling of differences,” but did not explain what the Chinese leader meant.
“While the Chinese leader acknowledged the inevitable of having challenges to the bilateral relations, he placed importance on the mutual trust that exists between the two nations,” Panelo said.
He said Xi underscored that China and the Philippines had agreed to jointly explore the South China Sea for minerals that could benefit both nations.
“The chief executive culminated the talk with the Chinese president articulating his position that the Philippines remains China’s ally in Southeast Asia,” Panelo said.
Duterte considers the Chinese as his nation’s new benefactor and has tried to ingratiate himself to Beijing after an international arbitration court in 2016 ruled in Manila’s favor in a South China Sea complaint. China claims the entire sea on historical grounds and has said it would never follow the ruling.
On the eve of congressional elections in May and faced with backlash over his perceived weak stance against China, Duterte recently voiced anger over Beijing’s encroachment in the sea region, particularly after Filipino defense officials complained about a swarm of Chinese ships near Pag-asa, an island within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Earlier this month, Duterte warned China to stay away from areas controlled by Manila, and said he was prepared to call on troops to protect Pag-asa if necessary.
Senator calls for transparency
Sen. Grace Poe, a political ally of Duterte, on Friday urged the government to make all business deals with China transparent to remove doubts that they could be harmful to national interests.
“It's time that we assert our sovereignty and protect our territory,” Poe said, emphasizing that a “true friend does not seek to put one over on you.”
“Any discussion or agreements on joint development should proceed from the assumption that the West Philippine Sea is our territory,” she said.