BEIJING - The South China Sea dispute is not on the agenda when President Rodrigo Duterte meets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, here on Thursday, the Philippines' foreign minister said.
The meeting, the first between the two heads of state, aims to "strengthen" the Philippines' relationship with China and spur trade and investments, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said.
If ever the sea dispute is brought up, Yasay said it would be to lay out "general principles" for negotiations at an "opportune time."
"All I am saying is that the time is not ripe for us to sit down on a bilateral negotiations for the purpose of resolving the issue," Yasay told reporters.
"The purpose of this trip is not to discuss the Scarborough Shoal or the South China Sea dispute. The purpose of this trip is precisely to strengthen our relationship with China especially so in the other aspects of the relationship which is the main bulk of relationship, trade investments, infrastructure development, cultural exchanges, people to people contact," he said.
A United Nations-backed tribunal in July ruled in favor of a Philippine challenge and said that China did not have historic rights to exploit the resource-rich South China Sea.
"If they would like to raise this in their bilateral engagement with the highest level, with President Xi Jinping, then so be it but it would just be for the purpose of coming up with guidelines or parameters under which we can move forward," Yasay said.
Yasay said Scarborough Shoal, where Chinese ships have been turning away Filipino fishermen, is also not part of the agenda. China has held the rich fishing ground since the end of a naval standoff in 2012.
Seeking China's permission for Filipino fishermen to enter the shoal would suggest that Beijing owns the outcrop, which Yasay said is "not something that we can accept."
The sea disputes could take "many years, perhaps not even in our lifetime to fully resolve," but this should not stop the Philippines and China from seeking other avenues for cooperation, he said.
A possible joint exploration for oil and gas, as brought up by some businessmen, was also not on the agenda, Yasay said.
Chinese businessmen have expressed interest to invest in the country's economic zones, said Charito Plaza, director general of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority.
"We should already put an end to that colonial mentality and exclusivity to America. The Philippines should be established as a zone of peace, meaning we should be friend of everybody and an enemy of no one," she told reporters.
Duterte is seeking closer ties with China as he reassesses Manila's long-standing alliance with Beijing's rival, Washington.
China will likely reciprocate Duterte's signal seeking a thaw in ties, said Chinese-Filipino businessman Francis Chua.
"What is expected, China is going to help him to prove that at the end of the day his decision is correct," Chua told reporters.
China is "very open" to engage the Philippines in a joint exploration of areas in the South China Sea, he said.