Duterte met Xi to build, not burn, bridges with China, says envoy

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing yesterday - their eighth encounter in three years. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing yesterday - their eighth encounter in three years. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping yesterday, their eighth meeting in three years in what Manila's top envoy in Beijing described as a high-stakes engagement with the intent "to build bridges, not to burn".

They met at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China's state news agency Xinhua reported.

It did not say whether Mr Duterte had brought up the 2016 ruling by a Hague arbitration tribunal, which invalidated Beijing's claim over most of the South China Sea, as he had previously pledged.

China's state television quoted Mr Xi as saying the two countries should work to promote the early realisation of the South China Sea Code of Conduct by 2021 or earlier. He also said the two sides should "maintain effective communication, set aside disputes and eliminate external interference".

President Xi was quoted in Xinhua as saying: "I am willing to work with you to continue to grasp the good times and the momentum from a strategic and long-term perspective, and lead the development of Sino-Philippine relations."

The Philippines and China signed six agreements, according to a government statement.

Earlier yesterday, Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Santo Romana told reporters Mr Duterte spent the first three years of his term building "a reservoir of goodwill and friendship" with Mr Xi and China. But he "decided it's time to include in the diplomatic agenda... sensitive issues that may have caused misunderstanding if it were brought up in the past", the envoy said, referring to The Hague ruling.

So Mr Duterte is in China "to build bridges, not to burn bridges", as he and Mr Xi held what the envoy described as "a high-stakes diplomatic engagement".

The Philippine leader has come under increasing pressure at home to press China on The Hague ruling. Manila calls the disputed waters the West Philippine Sea.

Beijing and Manila have fundamental differences over the ruling, but Mr Duterte is not coming to "impose" or "provoke" China, but "to have a deeper understanding and to see... where the gaps can be bridged", the ambassador said.

Mr Duterte will be "trying to understand the Chinese position, while explaining our own position", he said, adding "we have no illusion we can solve the issue overnight".

China's envoy to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua has said Beijing's stance on the 2016 ruling - which is to ignore it - is unlikely to change.

Mr Santo Romana said the differences between the two countries "do not define the totality of the bilateral relations".

Owing to Mr Duterte's detente, China has become the Philippines' biggest trading partner and export market. Chinese tourist arrivals in the Philippines jumped nearly 20 per cent to 1.26 million last year.

On Wednesday, the owner of a Chinese fishing boat apologised in writing and offered compensation for the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat off the coast of Recto Bank on June 9. A total of 22 Philippine fishermen were rescued by a Vietnamese crew hours after the Chinese vessel fled.

The Chinese government has verbally expressed regret through diplomatic channels, but Manila pressed for an apology in writing, Mr Santo Romana said.

Today, Mr Xi and Mr Duterte will attend the opening ceremony of the 2019 Fiba Basketball World Cup in Beijing, in what has been billed as "basketball diplomacy".

• Additional reporting by Raul Dancel in Manila

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2019, with the headline 'Duterte met Xi to build, not burn, bridges with China, says envoy'. Print Edition | Subscribe