China has announced that its foreign minister will make an official visit to the Philippines today to "improve relations", raising hopes of a thaw in bilateral ties strained by years of territorial disputes.
China also confirmed that President Xi Jinping will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Economic Leaders' Meeting in Manila next week, quashing rumours that he might skip the summit because of bilateral tensions.
Addressing a regular press briefing yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Foreign Minister Wang Yi will meet Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and other high-ranking officials, and they will discuss preparations for Mr Xi's visit.
This will be the first visit by a Chinese foreign minister to Manila under Mr Xi's leadership. Since assuming the position in 2013, Mr Wang has paid visits to almost all other Asean countries but has snubbed the Philippines, which has been a vocal opponent to China over competing South China Sea claims.
In 2013, the Philippines filed a case with The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration to challenge the legality of China's territorial claims, angering its bigger neighbour.
Sino-Philippine relations are facing difficulties at present for reasons everyone knows about, Mr Hong noted at yesterday's briefing.
"This is something China does not wish to see," he said. "China pays great attention to relations with the Philippines and is willing to appropriately resolve relevant issues on the basis of dialogue and negotiation."
The announcement suggests that China might be taking a softer approach to the South China Sea dispute, following a series of unfavourable recent events, analysts told The Straits Times.
China might be feeling boxed in after it suffered a legal setback last month, when the court in The Hague allowed the case filed by the Philippines to proceed, noted Jinan University South-east Asia expert Zhang Mingliang.
The ruling came soon after the United States openly challenged Chinese territorial claims by sailing a navy destroyer near the Spratlys in the South China Sea.
"By announcing Wang Yi's visit on the same day as Xi's, it seems China wants to state quite clearly that it hopes to ease the situation with the Philippines," said Professor Zhang.
Dr Li Jinming of Xiamen University believes Mr Wang's visit will be an opportunity for both sides to calmly discuss an issue that has been marked by angry rhetoric, including a remark by Philippine President Benigno Aquino likening China to Nazi Germany.
The Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs yesterday said Mr Wang will arrive at the department in the morning to sign a guestbook, and have photos taken with Mr del Rosario.
Prof Zhang believes Mr Wang may then discuss the possibility of Mr Xi holding official talks with Mr Aquino on the sidelines of the Apec summit as well.
"The South China Sea has really cast a shadow on ties between China and the Philippines," he said. "The two sides will hope to walk out of that shadow soon."
- SEE WORLD