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The Philippines and China will open bilateral talks on their dispute over the South China Sea next week, Manila’s ambassador to Beijing said today. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to deepen relations with China despite its extensive island-building in disputed parts of the South China Sea, in the hopes of securing billions of dollars’ worth of investments from Beijing.
“We will inaugurate the bilateral consultative mechanism on issues of particular concern to each side. This is where the sensitive issues will be discussed,” Ambassador Jose “Chito” Santa Romana said in Beijing in comments aired by ABS-CBN television.
Santa Romana made the comments ahead of Duterte’s arrival in Beijing to attend the One Belt, One Road summit on Sunday and Monday — a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“The first session will be next week but this will be a session that will continue on a twice-yearly basis, a chance to exchange views on the South China Sea issue,” he said.
China claims nearly all of the strategically vital waterway, despite partial counter-claims from several regional states including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Santa Romana said the Duterte administration was putting the South China Sea dispute on a separate track while pursuing economic and diplomatic relations with China, adding that previously bilateral ties had been “frozen” because the territorial row had taken centre stage.
“There is a whole sphere of relationships you can fast-track without giving up your sovereignty claim. To put it on a separate track is not to abandon or give up but rather to compartmentalise it,” he said.
Duterte has sought closer ties with China and Russia while distancing the Philippines from its traditional ally, the United States.
Last month, he alarmed observers when he issued a chairman’s statement, after hosting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which took a soft stance towards Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
The statement merely took note of “concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area”.
It also ignored an international tribunal ruling last year which said China’s claims to most of the sea were unlawful.
Leaders from nearly 30 nations are attending next week’s forum in Beijing, which will showcase Xi’s grand plan to revive ancient Silk Road trade routes by bankrolling rail, maritime and road projects across Asia, Europe and Africa.