Philippines, China to hold direct talks on sea row: Manila

Agence France Presse

Posted at Mar 29 2017 04:27 PM

Fiery Cross reef, located in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, is shown in this handout CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative satellite image. Reuters

MANILA, Philippines - China and the Philippines will hold direct talks on their maritime dispute in May, Filipino officials said Wednesday, as President Rodrigo Duterte seeks stronger economic ties with Beijing.

Last year a United Nations-backed international tribunal rejected Beijing's claims to most of the South China Sea, including disputed areas close to the coasts of its neighbors.

But Duterte, elected last year, has played down that ruling and pushed for rapprochement with China as he seeks billions of dollars in trade and investment from it.

China this week offered to host a meeting in May of a "bilateral consultation mechanism" to tackle issues related to the sea row, the Philippine foreign department said.

"This is a new proposal, a bilateral consultation mechanism specifically on the South China Sea," spokesman Charles Jose told reporters.

China rejects the tribunal's ruling and asserts sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims from Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

A satellite image shows what CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says appears to be anti-aircraft guns and what are likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on the artificial island Subi Reef in the South China Sea in this image released on December 13, 2016. Courtesy CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe/Handout via Reuters

It has extensively reclaimed reefs and installed military and other facilities including airstrips on some outcrops.

China has always favored bilateral talks with each rival claimant instead of negotiations involving all six, as was previously favoured by the Philippines.

Analysts say direct talks with smaller neighbors would allow China to exert its massive economic and political leverage in a region dependent on Chinese trade.

Combination of satellite photos shows Chinese-controlled North Island, part of the Paracel Islands group in the South China Sea, on February 15, 2017 (top) and on March 6, 2017. Planet Labs/Handout

Jose said the Chinese invitation for the May bilateral talks set no preconditions.

"What is important is we have a peaceful means (to resolve the dispute)," he added.

Duterte, 72, has repeatedly said he does not want to go to war with Beijing over the sea row.

After his election he pivoted his nation's foreign policy away from traditional ally the United States towards China.

Jose said the direct talks would be the "platform" where the Philippines could raise issues like China's construction of artificial islands.

Both nations were still finalizing the agenda, dates and level of representation, he added.

Duterte's spokesman hailed the proposed meeting.

"Through this bilateral mechanism, mutual trust and maritime cooperation will be forged and misunderstandings will be avoided," Ernesto Abella said.

Duterte last week heaped praise on China for improving trade relations and for supposedly committing not to build on another disputed shoal that lies even closer to the Philippines than the reclaimed reefs.

"China has a word of honor," Duterte said. "Whatever China says, in good stead, it will really do."

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