Duterte calls China's Xi a great leader

Incoming Philippine leader could be trying to settle S. China Sea disputes with Beijing

Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has called China's President Xi Jinping a "great" leader, in yet another sign that he is drawing Manila closer to Beijing in hopes of settling the simmering rows over the South China Sea.

At a news conference late on Tuesday, Mr Duterte heaped praise on Mr Xi, calling him a "great" leader, although he was unsure whether to call him a president or prime minister.

Mr Duterte was reacting to a message from the Chinese President congratulating him on his victory in the May 9 election.

"A friendly, stable and sound China-Philippines relationship is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and their people," said Mr Xi, adding: "We hope the two sides can work together to bring bilateral relations back on a healthy track."

Asked if he would push for bilateral talks with China, Mr Duterte replied: "We have this pact with the West, but I want everybody to know that we will be charting a course of our own."

"It will not be dependent on America," he said, "and it will be a line that is not intended to please anybody but the Filipino interest."

Mr Duterte earlier said he would pursue multilateral talks to settle territorial rows with China, but that "if these go on still waters… there's no wind to move the sail, I might opt to go bilateral".

In Beijing yesterday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said China hopes Mr Duterte's new government "can honour their commitments and return to dialogue with China to properly handle the disputes so as to contribute to the healthy and stable development of bilateral relations".

The Philippine Foreign Ministry's incoming chief Perfecto Yasay on Monday said bilateral talks with China were "necessary" to settle rows over the South China Sea. "I don't think there is another way of resolving this dispute..."

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters that overlap with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taipei.

Meanwhile, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel said Washington had "no problem" with bilateral talks among countries with claims in the South China Sea.

He said some disputes were by their nature multilateral and could not be resolved on a bilateral basis.

Since the election, Mr Duterte has adopted a more conciliatory tone on the issue than outgoing President Benigno Aquino.

China's Ambassador Zhao Jianhua was among the first envoys Mr Duterte met after his victory was confirmed.

Since then, Filipino fishermen working in waters near the disputed Scarborough Shoal have reported being able to ply their trade without being harassed by China's Coast Guard.

Relations between China and the Philippines hit rock bottom under Mr Aquino. Manila rankled Beijing in 2013 after it filed a case asking a United Nations tribunal to rule that China's claims are invalid.

Mr Aquino also sparked fury in China by comparing its programme of reclamation with that of Nazi Germany in the run-up to WWII, urging the international community to put its foot down.

Mr Aquino had refused to hold direct talks, fearing the better resourced and more powerful China would have an advantage.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline Duterte calls China's Xi a great leader. Subscribe