China has formally urged the Philippines to resolve their South China Sea territorial dispute through bilateral negotiations, in what analysts describe as a friendly overture to Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte to repair bilateral ties.
But this comes even as Beijing continues to step up construction of facilities in the South China Sea, with reports published yesterday of its plans for an "oceanic space station" that could help look for minerals.
Analysts said the manned platform, which was mentioned in China's current five-year economic plan and ranked second on a list of the top 100 science and technology priorities, might have a military purpose in the disputed waters.
"The door of China-Philippines bilateral negotiation is always open," the Foreign Ministry said yesterday in a statement, which reiterated China's commitment towards settling disputes on the basis of respecting historical facts and in accordance with international law.
Ties between China and the Philippines have soured since 2013, after Manila lodged a case with an international tribunal at The Hague against China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is vital to global shipping trade and believed to be rich in energy resources.
China insists on direct negotiations with claimants, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, but this has been met with resistance over fears of being outmuscled by the Asian giant. China has said it will not take part in the arbitration proceedings or accept its ruling, which is expected in the coming weeks.
In the statement released in English and Chinese, the Foreign Ministry said there was a clear agreement reached between China and the Philippines to settle their South China Sea dispute through negotiation. It said this agreement was made in several joint statements by both sides in 1995, 2004 and 2011.
It also cited the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002 between China and the Asean bloc, in which claimant states pledged to resolve the disputes through "friendly consultations and negotiations".
Despite these agreements, Beijing said both sides have not held negotiations on the disputes, as it sought to dispute Manila's account that it had to lodge the arbitration case after an exchange of views since 1995 failed to yield progress.
The statement added that China had proposed several times to set up a regular consultation mechanism on maritime issues - most recently after the joint statement in September 2011 - but had not received any response.
"It is completely groundless for the Philippines to claim that it is meaningless to continue the negotiations, and that the Philippine side has had to initiate the arbitration," the statement added.
The Philippine Foreign Ministry declined to comment on China's statement, Reuters news agency reported yesterday.
Analysts said China's statement may be fuelled by its optimism in dealing with Mr Duterte, who has raised the possibility of direct talks with China.
Professor Zhang Mingliang, a Sino- Asean relations expert at Jinan University, said the statement is essentially a summary of the ministry's efforts in recent months to outline China's policy stance on the arbitration case.
"But it is significant that the ministry has decided to put into writing its invitation for the Philippines to return to bilateral negotiations," he told The Straits Times.
"It could be a message that Beijing is willing to turn the page on the previous Philippine government's actions and to start afresh with Duterte's administration."