MANILA • Diplomats in the Philippines are in talks with counterparts in Japan and China to arrange visits by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the end of next month, officials in Manila said yesterday.
Dates were still being worked out for the proposed trips, several officials said, requesting to remain anonymous as they were not authorised to speak to the media.
A Japanese foreign ministry official confirmed that plans were being made. China's Foreign Ministry did not confirm the trip, but reiterated its invitation to Mr Duterte to visit "at an early date".
The Philippines' relations with Japan are warm, but its ties with China have long been frosty due to territorial wrangles in the South China Sea. Mr Duterte has repeatedly said the conflict was pointless and that he wants to get along and do business with Beijing.
Some analysts believe Mr Duterte's verbal restraint towards China, in contrast to his rebukes of the US, United Nations and European Union, shows he is hedging in pursuit of his goal of an independent foreign policy and of reducing reliance on Washington. Mr Duterte has lashed out against Washington, the EU and the UN for criticising his anti-drug campaign, which has left nearly 3,000 people dead.
China and the Philippines are trying to find a way to break the ice after a verdict by an arbitral court in The Hague in July invalidated China's claims to most of the South China Sea and gave Manila the legal high ground in the dispute.
WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S A WAY
As long as both the Philippines and China continue to maintain the political will to reconcile our differences, there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome.
CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN LU KANG
During a speech on Thursday, Mr Duterte said he would go to China this year and, without elaborating, told Chinese businessmen: "You will see me often."
He reiterated that he would not deviate from the court ruling but would seek a way out of the four- year deadlock over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, and get China's coastguard to let Filipinos fish there unimpeded. The arbitration panel ruled that no one country can legally control the shoal.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters at a briefing that "as long as both the Philippines and China continue to maintain the political will to reconcile our differences, there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome".
A source in Mr Duterte's office said it was possible former president Fidel Ramos, his new China envoy, could visit China as early as next week to lay the groundwork for talks.
The Philippines' relationship with Japan is far less complicated and Tokyo has agreed to provide 10 coastguard vessels to Manila to support its maritime security efforts.
Japan, a major investor across South-east Asia, has also been providing coastguard training and ships to Vietnam, another country at odds with China over maritime disputes.