MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday said Manila and Beijing "do not have any quarrel" and could "talk" about the disputed Spratly Islands, as fresh tensions surfaced in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippine Coast Guard in late March accused its Chinese counterpart of steering one of its ships within meters of a Filipino patrol boat near the Scarborough Shoal. That came just weeks after Manila confronted Beijing's ambassador over a Chinese navy ship "lingering" in Philippine waters.
But Duterte in a speech told Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, "The Philippines and China, we do not have any quarrel."
"We can talk about the Spratly Islands and probably the fishing rights of my countrymen. Plain talk, nothing else," he continued.
Duterte made the remark during the inauguration of the China-funded Binondo-Intramuros Bridge in Manila.
The 680-meter steel arch bridge can serve around 30,000 motorists daily. It is one of 2 bridge projects fully-funded by the Chinese government, along with the completed Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge.
"I also thank and with gratitude the People’s Republic of China for the confidence and for being a partner in enhancing key infrastructure projects in our country," Duterte said in his speech.
Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jingping are set to meet virtually on Friday.
Since taking power in 2016 Duterte has moved closer to China, but has faced pushback from the Philippine public and concern in the military wary of Beijing's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea.
Trillions of dollars in trade pass through the strategic sea and it is thought to contain rich petroleum deposits, making it a frequent source of regional friction.
China has ignored a 2016 ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that its historical claim to the area is without basis. It has reinforced its stance by building artificial islands over some contested reefs and installing weapons on them.
Malacañang earlier said the Chinese government initiated the meeting between Duterte and Xi. The Palace added that no agenda was set so far.
When Duterte first mentioned about the meeting though, he was talking about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He has expressed concern that the Philippines was "involved" in the conflict because of its security alliance with the United States.
— With reports from Pia Gutierrez, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse