Philippines, China to open talks on S. China Sea issue

MANILA • The Philippines and China will open bilateral talks on their dispute over the South China Sea next week, Manila's ambassador to Beijing said yesterday.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to deepen relations with China despite its extensive island-building in disputed parts of the South China Sea, in hopes of securing billions of dollars' worth of investments from Beijing.

"We will inaugurate the bilateral consultative mechanism on issues of particular concern to each side. This is where the sensitive issues will be discussed," Ambassador Jose "Chito" Santa Romana said.

Mr Santa Romana made the comments ahead of Mr Duterte's arrival in Beijing to attend the One Belt, One Road summit today and tomorrow - a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"The first session will be next week, but this will be a session that will continue on a twice-yearly basis, a chance to exchange views on the South China Sea issue," he said.

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital waterway, despite partial counter-claims from several regional states, including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Mr Santa Romana said the Duterte administration was putting the dispute on a separate track while pursuing economic and diplomatic relations with China.

"There is a whole sphere of relationships you can fast-track without giving up your sovereignty claim. To put it on a separate track is not to abandon or give up but rather to compartmentalise it," he said.

Mr Duterte has sought closer ties with China and Russia while distancing the Philippines from its traditional ally, the United States.

At the Asean summit last month, he alarmed observers when he issued a chairman's statement which took a soft stance towards Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

The statement merely took note of "concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area". It also ignored an international tribunal ruling last year which said China's claims to most of the sea were unlawful.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Philippines, China to open talks on S. China Sea issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe