China wields might to coax Duterte into bilateral sea talks

China wields might to coax Duterte into bilateral sea talks

by Christopher Bodeen and Gillian Wong
Associated Press

BEIJING — China scored a major diplomatic victory Thursday, wielding its economic might and political clout to coax the Philippines into resuming a bilateral dialogue on their South China Sea territorial dispute following months of acrimony.

The move could widen a political rift between the Philippines' treaty ally the United States and the new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made no secret of his antipathy for America and ordered an end to joint maneuvers between their militaries.

Following talks in Beijing between Duterte and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, a senior Chinese diplomat announced the sides had agreed to restore the full range of contacts, although he said the leaders touched only briefly on the South China Sea.

"Both sides agreed that the South China Sea issue is not the sum total of the bilateral relationship," Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters.

The two sides agreed to return to the approach used five years ago of seeking a settlement throughbilateral dialogue, Liu said.

That was followed with an announcement by Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez at a bilateraleconomic forum that his country and China will sign $13.5 billion of deals this week. He did not elaborate.

Separately, the Philippines Presidential Communications Office said Xi committed more than $9 billion in low-interest loans to the country, with about a third of the loan offer coming from private banks. About $15 million in loans will go toward drug rehabilitation programs.

In opening remarks to his talks with Xi, Duterte hailed a warming of relations with China.

"China has been a friend of the Philippines and the roots of our bonds are very deep and not easily severed," he said. "Even as we arrive in Beijing, close to winter, this is a springtime of our relationship."

Xi, who greeted Duterte with full military honors at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the ceremonial legislature in the heart of Beijing, 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."

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.

Bilateral 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'spredecessor. The Philippines has insisted the ruling form the basis for any negotiations, while Beijing has insisted on the opposite.

The Hague-based tribunal found the Philippines and China both retained traditional fishing rights in the area.

The leaders did not discuss whether China would allow Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal, Liu said, likely disappointing Manila.

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 that China is willing to help the Philippines build and provide preferential loans to finance infrastructure such as railways, roads, ports and airports.

China is already taking steps to pursue such projects. Among 13 agreements signed following Xi's talkswith Duterte was a memorandum of understanding on a list of transportation infrastructure cooperation projects under consideration, along with on financing cooperation between China's Export-Import Bank and the Philippine Treasury Department.

Duterte has walked a tightrope in trying to mend damaged relations with China while defending his country's claims in the South China Sea.

The Philippine leader known for his devil-may-care, profanity-laden speeches had said he would not raise the issue that has angered China unless his Chinese counterpart first brought it up, out of "courtesy" to his host.

Duterte's visit showed his desire for economic benefits, while the Chinese want to manage issues between the two countries through bilateral talks, Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email.

"This is an interesting courtship between China and the Philippines," Glaser wrote. "It remains to be seen whether China will seek Manila's respect for Chinese sovereignty. That would likely be a deal breaker."

Thursday's breakthrough will also be closely scrutinized in Washington for its impact on U.S. relations, given Duterte's strident anti-American rhetoric.

Duterte's public comments in Beijing centered almost exclusively on criticizing the United States, including his address to Thursday's economic forum.

"Your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States ... both in military and economics also," he said. His remarks were met with applause, but Duterte was not more specific.

He has previously said the Philippines would stop joint military exercises with the U.S., and he opposes joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea. But U.S. officials say its commitment to the treaty alliance with the Philippines remains "ironclad."

When asked recently about the president's apparent plans to disengage with the U.S. militarily, the Philippine defense secretary told senators that Duterte sometimes makes remarks on Philippine-U.S.-military relations without consulting Cabinet officials.

Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report from Manila, Philippines.

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