President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the two countries must always keep communication lines open amid an ongoing dispute over the South China Sea.
During his bilateral meeting with Xi, Duterte underscored the strengthening of ties between Manila and Beijing, which has been strained by the conflict.
“Since my state visit last year, the Philippines and China have seen the valued friendships become stronger. I look forward to productive discussions today to continue this positive engagement to further deepen our relations,” Duterte told Xi.
Duterte’s visit to China, the second since he assumed the presidency more than 10 months ago, highlights his stunning reversal on Philippine foreign policy toward China.
Prior to assuming the presidency, Philippines-China relations were at a historic low, mainly due to the move of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, to bring China to an international arbitral tribunal to settle the maritime dispute.
The Aquino government succeeded in invalidating China’s expansive claims to the resource-rich open-water area when a The Hague-based tribunal declared that China’s so-called “nine-dash line” claim to the sea has no basis in international law.
When Duterte won, he chose to downplay Manila’s legal victory in exchange for improved economic ties with Beijing. His attendance in the recently concluded summit "Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation" is a testament to the thawing of bilateral ties.
The two-day forum, which focuses on Xi’s signature foreign policy project aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road trading route through the building of infrastructure across Asia, Europe and Africa, is seen by some critics as an effort to boost Beijing’s global clout on trade and geopolitics.
Beijing has insisted that its intentions under the Silk Road initiative are benign, even as some rival countries warn of the lack of transparency in the projects.
Duterte, who has expressed his aversion toward Manila’s traditional ally Washington, has turned to Beijing to improve the country’s aging infrastructure and strengthen its military, regarded as one of Asia’s weakest. The president's moves have been criticized by his political foes, who have accused the Filipino leader of selling the country’s sovereignty.
The Philippines’ participation in the Silk Road initiative is seen as helpful, as Manila addresses its infrastructure problem and the government vows to improve inter-island transportation which it says is the solution to poverty.
Duterte has been unfazed by criticism of his pro-China policy. Later this week, the Philippines and China will conduct one-on-one talks over the sea dispute.
“We have resumed our regular dialogue mechanism. The Foreign Ministry consultations was finally reconvened in Manila this year to strengthen ties and to make use of that mechanism. It is important to keep our communication lines open,” he said.
“I am pleased that we have established a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea. This is one step towards peacefully engaging disputes and I hope that the inaugural meeting . . . on May 19th will be a success.”
The Aquino administration discounted the idea of holding bilateral talks with China, saying Beijing will only use its military and economic might to get what it wants.
Aquino's government wanted all South China Sea claimants to have a seat at the negotiating table with Beijing, a scenario that never took place.