Beijing, Philippines move to calm South China Sea tensions

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino said he and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping had a "meeting of minds" on Tuesday during talks which included a territorial row that has soured relations between the South China Sea states.

The Philippines is in dispute with China over parts of the sea including the Scarborough Shoal, an area believed to be rich in oil and natural gas as well as fisheries resources.

China seized control of the shoal in June 2012 and has prevented Philippine fishermen from getting close to the rocky outcrop, a rich fishing ground.

"The warmth was there... there was sincerity," Aquino told a select group of Filipino journalists in Beijing, where he was attending the Asia-Pacific Economic and Cooperation (Apec) summit.

Aquino attended a tree-planting ceremony on the outskirts of Beijing, and had informal talks with Xi for about 10 minutes afterwards.

"There was factual layout of the... issues, where we were, where we are and where we will be. (On) most of the general points, we had a meeting of the minds," Aquino said.

"South China Sea was mentioned in passing... There was mention of finding constructive ways to solve this," he added.

The talks were held on China's initiative, a senior diplomat told Reuters, requesting anonymity.

Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted Xi as saying he hoped the two sides would "move in the same direction and constructively deal with it".

In a symbolic gesture of goodwill, Aquino was in the first row when Apec's 21 leaders posed for photographers and television crews at the Water Cube, the swimming venue during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on Monday.

During the carefully choreographed "family" photo shoot, Aquino stood to the right of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who flanked President Xi.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is widely disliked in China for moves his critics say have stoked tensions in the region, was in the second row.

Manila will host next year's Apec summit.

Chinese media slammed Aquino in February over remarks that compared the international reaction to China's claims to South China Sea territory to the failure by the West to support Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler's demands in 1938.

In August, Manila said Beijing had asked Aquino to call off a trip to southern China for the opening of the annual China-Asean Expo trade fair, in an apparent snub. But Beijing insisted it had never invited him in the first place.

Aquino last visited China in 2011.

Manila has irked Beijing by seeking international arbitration over China's "nine-dash-line" claims to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim part of the waters, through which about US$5 trillion (S$6.4 trillion) of ship-borne goods pass every year.