MANILA • Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang met Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in his home city yesterday, becoming the most high-profile visitor from Beijing since the two countries, long at odds, sought to chart a new course in relations.
Mr Wang went to Davao City, where Mr Duterte was mayor for 22 years before he became president last year and sought a major change in approach towards China at the height of a row over South China Sea sovereignty and amid the fallout of a legal dispute that went to international arbitration.
Mr Wang signed a six-year development programme to work together on trade and investment, part of Mr Duterte's strategy to engage China as a buyer of Philippine farm and fisheries produce, and as a builder and financier of much-needed infrastructure.
"Wang Yang noted the need to focus on common interests that bring more benefits than differences," presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said after the closed-door meeting between Mr Duterte and Mr Wang. "The President said bilateral ties are found stronger, particularly in trade and commerce, and reaffirmed the importance of peaceful settlement of disputes."
Mr Abella quoted Mr Wang as saying the signed agreement "demonstrates the sincerity of China", which he hoped would result in concrete outcomes. "Wang Yang reiterated (China's) commitment to follow through with agreements made during the President's visit to Beijing, including in PPP (public-private partnership), trade and investment," he said.
The relationship has for years been characterised by disputes, with the Philippines opposing China's island building in parts of its exclusive economic zone and its repelling of fishermen from the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Though Mr Duterte has persuaded China to end the blockade and let fishermen operate around the shoal, China has continued to fortify some of its artificial islands with military hardware.
It was unclear if Mr Wang and Mr Duterte discussed China's decision to start preparatory work this year for an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines had recently said it was assured China would not carry out any building work there.
The six-year business deal covers loans, support with feasibility studies, grants for bridge building, a proposed Philippines-China industrial park, dams, railways and agri-business training. China last week committed to finance at least three Philippine infrastructure projects worth US$3.4 billion (S$4.8 billion), two of which could be rolled out in the first half of this year.
Mr Wang's visit to Davao comes two months after that of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was the first foreign leader to visit the Philippines under Mr Duterte, signalling Tokyo's intent to bolster its influence amid a changing geopolitical landscape. Mr Abe brought with him a 1 trillion yen (S$12.4 billion) aid package.
Mr Duterte was also visited yesterday by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who announced a A$90 million (S$97.2 million) programme to support education and policy development in Mindanao, an impoverished Muslim region. Mindanao has been plagued by decades of separatist rebellion, and the Philippines is concerned it could become a hotbed of extremism if the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gains a foothold.
"Both underscored that terrorism and violent extremism are serious threats," Mr Abella said of their meeting.
REUTERS, THE PHILIPPINE INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK