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Philippines, China Agree to Ease Tensions

by Simone Orendain November 10, 2015

The Philippines says it has agreed with China to pick up their stalled bilateral relations, after barely making contact in recent years because of competing claims in the South China Sea. The announcement came in the days leading up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in Manila with Chinese President Xi Jinping expected to be in attendance.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Spokesman Charles Jose said in the meeting Tuesday between Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi the two sides said they would set aside the "contentious issue" of the South China Sea to get back on track.

"The secretary [del Rosario] said he is pleased. He is very happy to welcome Minister Wang Yi and he said he has been looking forward to the visit because the visit itself is an indication that we can move the bilateral relations forward," Jose said.

He said the Chinese Foreign Ministry delegation made clear their side would not make any reference to maritime issues during the summit. Jose said they had come to lay the groundwork for what they called a "smooth, safe and successful" Philippines visit for President Xi Jinping. The spokesman said Manila is committed to not raising the issue.

Overlapping claims

In 2013, Manila filed a case before an international arbitration tribunal questioning the legality of what it calls China's "excessive claim" to practically the entire South China Sea. It is also seeking clarification from the judges on whether certain formations are entitled to their own economic exploitation. In the past year-and-a-half, China has built out at least six of the geographical features listed in the case into artificial islands.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, all APEC members, also have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

Beijing has consistently rejected the arbitration and is not participating.

Jose said the Philippines did not raise the sea dispute Tuesday with China because of its pending arbitration case. Furthermore, he said, APEC is not the right venue for what he said is a security-related issue.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong agreed Tuesday the ministry does not think the issue would be discussed at the APEC summit.

He said APEC is primarily about economic and trade cooperation in the Asia Pacific region.

But Jose said other countries are free to talk about it on the sidelines during the forum. Philippine President Benigno Aquino has scheduled 11 bilateral meetings, which include talks with the leaders of Vietnam, Japan and the United States.

Asia security analyst Carl Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy said there would likely be a "short, brief" exchange between Aquino and Xi.

"It gets the message across that China wants to convey. 'Stop looking at the artificial islands, look at the big picture. We are rising. We are peaceful. Get on the bandwagon, we are the future.'"

Thayer pointed out that in the past few days, Xi's visit to Vietnam and the historic meeting with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore also spelled out a way to "try to take away some of the heat" from the island-building project.

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