China and the Philippines are due to discuss territorial disputes in the South China Sea, according to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is in the archipelago this week on his first official visit.
He told the Philippine Star: “We need to properly handle differences through friendly consultations, enhance dialogue and cooperation on maritime issues, and make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation that truly benefits our two peoples.”
He praised his Philippine counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, for resuming dialogue on the resource-rich sea.
“I am visiting this time mainly to have in-depth discussions with President Duterte on how to elevate our all-round cooperation under new circumstances and make an overall plan for greater progress in our relationship toward a higher level.
“We need to deepen political mutual trust to sustain the growth of China-Philippine relations,” Xi was quoted saying.
When Duterte visited Beijing in 2016 (pictured), he signed 75 infrastructure deals. But three rail projects, three highways and nine bridges are at various levels of planning and budgeting or are awaiting Beijing’s approval for financing, or the selection of Chinese contractors.
Only three projects have started, including two bridges and an irrigation development, worth a combined US$167 million.
In July 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration said there was no legal basis for China’s maritime claims after the case was brought by the previous administration in Manila. China refused to recognise the court’s ruling and Duterte has shown little interest in exploiting it.
Bilateral relations had now reached an “apex” and were like a flower in full bloom, Duterte has told the Chinese media.
Agreements had been reached in foreign affairs, defence, energy, trade, agriculture, fisheries, science and technology, Duterte added.
China said trade between in 2017 topped US$50 billion, making China the Philippines’ top trading partner and importer, and the fourth-largest export market. Philippine exports to China grew by 10.5 per cent to US$19.2 billion last year.
Beijing said Chinese tourist arrivals rose from 490,000 in 2015 to 675,000 in 2016. In 2017 the figure was 968,000.
Duterte would need Chinese investment to justify his geopolitical concessions to a historic rival, said Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based security analyst.
“Otherwise, we can definitely conclude that there’s really nothing much in the rhetoric and the Philippines has been taken for a ride,” Heydarian told the media.
“Duterte’s naivety with China has been a slam dunk strategic coup for China, no doubt about it.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte in the China in 2016. Picture credit: Wikimedia