MANILA – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday took note of the improved relationship between the Philippines and China, saying there is much to be told about the "bright prospects" of relations between the two sides.
Li set foot in Malacañang on Wednesday as the first Chinese Premier to visit the Philippines in 10 years, bringing with him 14 agreements on grants and other points of cooperation between the two countries.
His remarks came amid a turnaround in ties between Manila and Beijing, which had figured in bitter exchanges over the unresolved South China Sea disputes.
“Winter has come to northern hemisphere, but the temperature in Manila is still running pretty high. I think that somewhat reflects the temperature of China-Philippine relations, which is also going pretty high on the basis of the positive improvement of the relations between the two countries,” Li said in a joint press conference with Duterte.
Duterte, meanwhile, hailed China’s support for the Philippines in various fields, including aid for the rehabilitation of conflict-stricken Marawi City.
The President said China was instrumental in ending the 5-month Marawi siege led by Islamic State-inspired terrorists.
He said a Chinese-donated firearm was the one used in killing Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the appointed Islamic State emir in Southeast Asia.
Hapilon was killed alongside terror leader Omar Maute last month, leading to the end of the siege on Oct. 23.
“So maybe I will look for the soldier who fired the fatal shot and I am going to return to you the rifle so that the Chinese people knew or would know that it was critical,” Duterte said during his expanded bilateral meeting with Li.
“It’s a symbol of the critical help, the crucial moment when we needed most and there was nobody to help us at that time,” he said.
Duterte said while the Philippines “cannot offer you anything because we are the ones…needing help," the Philippines may, in the future "show its debt of gratitude to China.”
Ties between the Philippines and China soured under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, under whose time Manila filed an arbitration case against Beijing over the South China Sea dispute.
In a major victory for Manila, a Hague-based United Nations-backed tribunal in July last year invalidated China’s expansive claims to the sea, a vital waterway through which $5 trillion worth of trade passes annually.
China has ignored the ruling, while the Philippines, now under Duterte, has chosen to raise it at a proper time while Manila pursues warmer ties with the economic and military giant.
Li, in his speech, said China would continue to extend aid and cooperation to the Philippines in various areas of development as part of its commitment to improve ties with the Southeast Asian nation.
He said China will put focus on Duterte’s infrastructure program, which is seen to benefit many Filipinos and businesses through an improved transportation system.
“[We] would be happy to enhance our cooperation with the Philippines in the infrastructure sector as well. Just now, the President and I have already exchanged views in great detail about how we can work with each other in those related areas,” he said.
“My suggestion is that our two sides may sit down together to discuss and formulate cooperation plans in these areas, lasting for the next five or even to 10 years to take forward our cooperation in these specific fields, to send out [a] message to people of the two countries as well as the international community that China-Philippine relationship will continuously go forward and the people-to-people friendship between us will be further strengthened,” Li said.
Li said “there have been doubts expressed by international media outlets as to whether the friendship between our two countries... would be able to consolidate and even last.”
Li, whose country is known for its strong media censorship, said “now is the time” for the Chinese and Philippine media to report “more on the bright prospects of China-Philippine relations and the much told stories of friendship between our two peoples.”