Duterte again raises possibility of direct talks with Beijing

Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a press conference before he meets well-wishers in Davao City, southern Philippines, May 16, 2016.
Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a press conference before he meets well-wishers in Davao City, southern Philippines, May 16, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has said he wants "friendly" ties with China, as he again floated the possibility of bilateral talks with Beijing in the event of a stalemate over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

"If the ship of negotiation is in still waters and there's no wind to push the sail, I might just decide to talk bilaterally with China," he told reporters late on Sunday.

Ties between Manila and Beijing have "never been cold", he said. "But I would rather be friendly with everybody."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reacted to the Philippine leader's overture during a regular briefing for the media in Beijing.

"China places high emphasis on bilateral ties and is willing to work hard together with the new government in returning to the path of healthy, stable development," he said. "We hope that the new Philippine government will adopt the same attitude and work towards the same goal."

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua echoed that line when he was interviewed after meeting Mr Duterte in the southern city of Davao yesterday.

"The Chinese side is looking forward (to working with) him and his team to further enhance our bilateral relationship," he said.

Relations between China and the Philippines have hit rock bottom under outgoing President Benigno Aquino over conflicting claims to parts of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway for US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) worth of ship-borne trade.

China has laid claim to most of the waterway and is embroiled in disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam over territory in the region.

To enforce its claims, China has, in recent years, built artificial islands with military-grade airstrips on contested reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the southern half of the South China Sea. It has also deployed missile batteries and warplanes in the Paracel island chain in the northern half of the waterway.

In 2013, Manila filed a case asking a United Nations tribunal to rule that China's claims are invalid, a move that rankled Beijing. The court is expected to rule on the case next month.

Mr Aquino has refused to hold direct talks with Beijing over the territorial dispute, fearing that the better resourced and more powerful China would have an advantage.

Mr Duterte, who will be sworn into office on June 30, said he planned to continue raising the issue at multilateral environments, even suggesting a "summit" among the Philippines, China, the United States and Japan.

But he also repeated a campaign pledge to hold direct talks with China, if other negotiations fail.

He has been signalling that he is willing to set aside Manila's claims over parts of the South China Sea if China agrees to build railways across the Philippines and join hands in exploring for resources in the contested waters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte again raises possibility of direct talks with Beijing'. Print Edition | Subscribe