Philippine President Aquino pledges warm welcome for China's Xi Jinping despite sea row

Philippine President Benigno Aquino (right) with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) during a courtesy call in Manila.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino (right) with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) during a courtesy call in Manila.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino has pledged a warm welcome for China's President Xi Jinping at an economic summit in Manila next week, despite an ongoing row with its giant Asian neighbour over disputed islands, an aide said on Tuesday (Nov 10).

The Filipino leader made the pledge as he hosted rare talks with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is in Manila on a working visit ahead of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.

"The President mentioned that he welcomed the decision of President Xi Jinping to attend the Apec summit," Aquino spokesman Herminio Coloma told reporters after Mr Wang's courtesy call.

"He assured the Foreign Minister that it is in the culture of the Filipinos as hosts to make our guests feel the warmth of Filipino hospitality," Mr Coloma added.

Mr Wang, who did not speak to the press, called on Mr Aquino after holding talks with Filipino Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.

The visits by Mr Wang and Mr Xi offers a rare opportunity for top-level talks between the Asian neighbours, which have seen diplomatic relations plummet in recent years over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea.

The Philippines has been angered over what it has branded China's "bullying" and "hypocritical" tactics, including building artificial islands and taking control of a rich fishing shoal in Filipino-claimed waters.

China has in turn been angered over the Philippines' efforts to have a UN tribunal rule on the dispute, as well as by Manila encouraging its defence ally the United States to exert military and political influence.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its Asian neighbours.

Mr Marciano Paynor, head of the hosts' Apec summit organising committee, told reporters Monday the maritime row would be off the summit agenda.

"I will reiterate that when we meet at Apec, it's all economic issues and we do not take up bilateral, specific bilateral issues in Apec," Mr Paynor added.

Discussing the Beijing officials' visits to Manila, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Monday that China wanted to improve relations with its neighbour.

"For reasons known to all, bilateral relations are facing difficulties, which is not something we want to see," Mr Hong told reporters in Beijing.

"We value bilateral ties, and we would like to properly resolve relevant issues through consultations and negotiations."

His comments came after a landmark summit between Mr Xi and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou at the weekend - the first such meeting since the two sides split at the end of a civil war in 1949.

Those talks raised hopes of a further thaw in relations between the two former rivals.

However, Mr Hong emphasised in his comments on Monday that the onus rested on the Philippines to improve ties with Beijing.

Mr Aquino's only meetings with Chinese leaders included a very brief encounter with Mr Xi on the sidelines of last year's Beijing Apec summit. He also made a state visit to China in 2011 for talks with Mr Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao.

Meanwhile, China will seek to push its own vision of an Asia-Pacific trade pact at a regional summit next week, senior officials said Tuesday, just weeks after the release of a rival US-led deal that pointedly excludes the Asian giant.

Beijing sought to promote the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) at last year's Apec summit, which it hosted.

At the meeting's close, participants endorsed efforts to explore the idea, which was seen as a potential rival to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a Washington-led trade coalition that includes the region's largest economies, except for China.

Little has been heard of the FTAAP since, while the long-secret text of the TPP deal was released Thursday, receiving cheers from global business interests and jeers from labour, environmental and health groups, which vowed to fight its ratification.

China said it would report the findings of a study on FTAAP at next week's APEC summit in the Philippines, to be attended by President Xi Jinping.

"We need to actively work for the establishment of FTAAP," Chinese Vice-Finance Minister Wang Shouwen told a briefing, adding that FTAAP would be "a facilitator for regional integration in Apec".

It would be the world's largest free trade area, encompassing TPP and other regional frameworks.

Apec's 21 members account for more than 50 per cent of global GDP and nearly half of world trade.

Although it gathers some of the world's most important leaders, the group's annual meeting is a better known for its group photos of powerful people in matching shirts than substantive deals.

But Mr Wang said China remains hopeful that the group will complete a roadmap for establishing the FTAAP framework.

"Our objective is to complete the joint strategic study next year and to present operable suggestions and recommendations to the leaders at next year's summit," he said.

China has latched onto the FTAAP, first proposed by APEC in 2006, as a hedge against the US-led TPP, a key element of Washington's "Asia pivot".

The TPP would be the world's biggest free trade area, an attempt to break down barriers to commerce and investment between 12 countries comprising about 40 percent of the global economy.

Although the US has said it is open to Chinese participation in the TPP, it has pointedly excluded the world's second largest economy from negotiations.

US President Barack Obama has insisted he wants China "to do well" despite simmering tensions between the world's two largest economies.

"The United States welcomes the rise of a prosperous, peaceful and stable China," he said at last year's Apec summit.

But at home, he has repeatedly used Beijing as a bugbear to scare up cooperation from an intransigent Congress to support the deal.

Mr Obama, who strongly pushed the TPP as a foundation for "21st-century trade", heralded the pact as a boost to the US economy that would also protect workers and the environment.

But he also said that ratifying the deal "means that America will write the rules of the road in the 21st century" rather than China.