MANILA (UPDATE) - President Rodrigo Duterte left for China Wednesday evening as the world watched how he would stand for Manila's rights in the South China Sea before Beijing.
Duterte left Manila at 7 p.m., marking the start of a high-stakes gamble to ease tensions in the resource-rich South China Sea.
Recent months have seen the Philippines asserting its rights over the West Philippine Sea, its exclusive economic zone in the waters, with diplomatic protests filed against Beijing's incursions.
"The time has come" for the Philippines to raise its rights over the disputed waters, which China claims in entirety, the Philippine leader had asserted.
“I’m going to China to talk. Did I not tell you before, that before my term ends, I will be talking about the [South] China Sea?” the President earlier said.
The trip comes with the backdrop of rising maritime tensions as more Chinese warships trespass in Philippine waters, and just months after Filipino fishermen were abandoned by a Chinese vessel that sank their fishing boat near the Recto (Reed) Bank in the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte had long been bombarded with criticism for setting aside Manila’s July 2016 victory in a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal which invalidated China's sweeping 9-dash line claim over the South China Sea.
This as Beijing refused to recognize the ruling, remaining firm on its stand ahead of Duterte's visit.
"What is important is as he promised the Filipino people, he would raise this issue at the proper time. And this is the proper time,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said.
China has conflicting claims with several nations over large parts of the South China Sea, through which roughly $3.4 trillion in shipping passes each year.
Aside from the Philippines, other claimants include Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
Analysts have described this trip as Duterte's "most critical" yet as the Philippines seeks concessions over the long-disputed waterway.
Aside from asserting Manila's rights in the West Philippine Sea, the President also plans to pursue an oil and gas sharing agreement with Beijing.
Duterte had welcomed China's proposal of a 60-40 joint oil and gas exploration deal, in favor of the Philippines.
"There has got to be something. You cannot just talk air... Let us talk about what is there, you (China) have to share with us," Duterte had said.