China and the Philippines will sign $13.5 billion in deals this week during the Philippine president’s visit to Beijing in which the two sides agreed to resume a dialogue on their dispute over the South China Sea, officials said Thursday. The move for bilateral talks was a diplomatic victory for Beijing several months after an arbitration tribunal invalidated China’s expansive territorial claims over the resource-rich waters in a case put forward by the Philippines. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as part of a charm offensive aimed at seeking trade and support from the Asian giant by setting aside the thorny territorial dispute.
Duterte hailed a warming of relations with China and said ties between them go back centuries. “China has been a friend of the Philippines and the roots of our bonds are very deep and not easily severed,” he told Xi in his opening remarks. “Even as we arrive in Beijing, close to winter, this is a springtime of our relationship,” he added.
Xi said the meeting had “milestone significance.” In a reference to the South China Sea tensions, Xi said that “although we have weathered storms, the basis of our friendship and our desire for cooperation has not changed.”
Following the talks, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters that the leaders only touched on the topic briefly during their talks. “Both sides agreed that the South China Sea issue is not the sum total of the bilateral relationship,” Liu said.
The two sides agreed to return to the approach used five years ago of seeking a settlement through bilateral dialogue, he said. While not mentioning the South China Sea specifically, Xi said that the two sides could set aside “issues on which an agreement is hard to reach” in their discussions, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Philippine diplomats could not be immediately reached for comment.
The talks had been suspended after China seized control of Scarborough Shoal, off the main Luzon island in the northern Philippines, and the Philippines launched the arbitration process under Duterte’s predecessor. The Philippines has in the past insisted that the ruling form the basis for any negotiations with China, while Beijing has insisted on the opposite.
The leaders did not discuss whether China would allow Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal, Liu said, an outcome likely to disappoint the Southeast Asian country. The Hague-based international tribunal found the Philippines and China both retained traditional fishing rights in the area. Duterte had previously said he would ask Beijing to allow Filipino fishermen to again operate in the area.
But China would lift restrictions on imports of tropical fruit from the Philippines and also cancel a travel advisory that had discouraged Chinese tourists from going to the Philippines, Liu said. Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli told a business forum attended by the visiting president that China is willing to help the Philippines build and provide preferential loans to finance infrastructure such as railways, roads, ports and airports.
Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez also said at the forum that his country and China will sign $13.5 billion of deals this week. He did not elaborate. Duterte was greeted by Xi with full military honors at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the ceremonial legislature in the heart of Beijing. The two leaders oversaw the signing of agreements between their governments.
China has framed Duterte’s visit as a step toward ending years of estrangement between the countries. Duterte has walked a tightrope in trying to mend damaged relations with China while defending his country’s claims in the disputed South China Sea. In Beijing, the Philippine leader known for his devil-may-care, profanity-laden speeches said Wednesday he would not raise the issue that has angered China unless his Chinese counterpart first brought it up, out of “courtesy” to his host.
The overtures to Beijing have drawn criticism of Duterte at home in the Philippines, where the public is wary of taking a deferential attitude to a country regarded as a bully. His visit is being watched by Washington for signs of just how seriously the new Philippine leader intends to pursue a shift away from Washington and toward Beijing, a move that could have a major impact on regional power dynamics.