MANILA - Friendship is "the only right choice" for China and the Philippines, a traditional US ally, Chinese President Xi Jinping said upon arrival here Tuesday.
Xi's 2 day-stopover in Manila, the first from a Chinese President in 13 years, comes as Beijing and Washington jostled for supremacy in the Pacific.
"Given the profound and complex changes in the world, good-neighborliness and friendship is the only right choice for China and the Philippines, two developing countries and emerging economies in Asia, and our peoples have higher expectations for stronger ties and cooperation across the board between our two sides," Xi said in a statement.
"China stands ready to work with the Philippines for even greater progress in our relations," he added.
President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 declared he was reorienting his foreign policy away from the US and towards China, despite decades of mistrust and bitter maritime disputes with Beijing.
Since Duterte took office, the Philippines and China "have reopened the door of friendship and cooperation to each other, bringing real benefits to our peoples and making an important contribution to regional peace, stability and prosperity," said Xi.
China has dispersed tens of billions of dollars in loans since 2013 as it expands its political influence globally, countering the American hegemony that characterized the post-World War II order, especially in Asia.
Manila said it hopes Xi's visit would finally net signed deals for investment in major infrastructure projects promised by Beijing when Duterte visited 2 years ago.
But Duterte's style of handling the South China Sea dispute has frustrated nationalists, who say he has been submissive in refusing to criticize China's military buildup, or seek its compliance with a 2016 arbitration award that invalidated its claim to almost the entire waterway.
Public opinion is largely supportive of Duterte's presidency but surveys consistently show reservations about his China policy and disdain for the United States.
A Social Weather Stations survey released late on Monday showed 84 percent of Filipinos felt it was wrong not to oppose China's militarization of its man-made islands, and 86 percent believed it was right to strengthen the Philippine military, especially the navy.
The poll of 1,200 people conducted in late September also showed trust in the United States remained "very good," but China was considered "poor."
A small protest was held outside China's embassy in Manila on Tuesday.
Asked about the survey, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, said Duterte's strategy was to avoid a potential "inferno" of conflict while reaping the rewards of improved business.
"They are not aware of the real geopolitics in the region. The president is a very cautious diplomat," Panelo told ANC.
"Rather than provoke, he'd rather talk with them and get some trade relations that will benefit this country."
Duterte has heaped praise on Xi for his support for his infrastructure program, although just 3 of dozens of such planned projects have broken ground.
Some analysts say Duterte risks appearing as if he has been duped into making concessions.
Other Philippine experts say delays in securing Chinese credit could be a blessing given the potential debt burden, echoing a warning delivered by US Vice President Mike Pence.
-- With reports from Agence France-Presse and Reuters