Duterte, China's Xi meet amid warming ties

Kyodo News

Posted at Oct 20 2016 11:59 AM | Updated as of Oct 20 2016 02:45 PM

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping review the guard of honor as they attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. Thomas Peter, Reuters

BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday as the two countries have started to seek an exit from several years of frosty relations over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

In what could be a turning point for their troubled ties, Duterte is expected to touch but not to dwell on their conflicting claims in the disputed sea during his discussions with Xi at Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

Instead, Duterte will use his time with Xi and senior Chinese officials to focus on ways to further develop the Philippines' economic growth with the help of Beijing.

He has expressed an interest in boosting bilateral trade and attracting more investment from China, especially in the area of infrastructure building, while setting aside thorny political issues.

China has welcomed Duterte's olive branch to Beijing and his willingness to strengthen bilateral cooperation.

Duterte's four-day visit to China through Friday marks his first overseas destination outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since taking office in late June. It is also the first state visit by a Philippine president to China since 2011.

Duterte's ice-breaking visit with hundreds of business executives in tow comes after an international arbitration tribunal ruled in mid-July that Beijing's sweeping claims to historical rights in the resource-rich South China Sea have no legal basis.

The case was brought to the court in 2013 by the then Philippine administration of Benigno Aquino after China seized control of Scarborough Shoal.

In its July 12 ruling, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague also said fishermen from the Philippines, like those from China, had traditional fishing rights at the shoal.

The tribunal's decision outraged China, which immediately called it "null and void."

On the eve of his meeting with Xi, Duterte told reporters at his hotel in the Chinese capital that he has no plans to bring up the landmark verdict.

Duterte said he "can't destroy the goodwill just by blurting out something," so the decision should take a back seat for the time being.

"The question again is (that) there'll be a time that you have to talk about it. Of course there will be a time, because, you know, there are also countries around that," he said. "But it is not the time to quarrel."

China has suggested its readiness to provide developmental assistance to the Philippines' new administration, in return for it shelving the arbitration's outcome and returning to the track of dialogue with Beijing in addressing their territorial rows, without the involvement of third countries, such as the United States and Japan.

In stark contrast to his predecessor, Aquino, Duterte has pledged to distance the Philippines from the United States, its long-standing security ally, and reduce its military presence in the southeast Asian country.

Duterte has repeatedly fired verbal salvos at Washington, which has criticized his brutal crackdown on suspected drug dealers and users in the Philippines.

During one speech, he said U.S. President Barack Obama could "go to hell."

After the trip to China, Duterte is scheduled to make a three-day official visit to Japan starting next Tuesday.

Japan was the Philippines' largest trading partner last year, accounting for 14.4 percent of its total trade, followed by China and the United States, according to official data from Manila.

Along with the United States, Japan has urged China to respect a rules-based order in the region and avoid taking an assertive posture, such as its building of military facilities in the South China Sea, which is also a key international shipping route.

China has been irritated by what it perceives as Japan's and some other non-claimants' meddling in its territorial issues with its smaller Asian neighbors.