Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday sought to draw the Philippines deeper into China's ambit as he championed free trade in a rivalry for influence with the US.
Chinese and Philippine officials exchanged 29 memoranda, commercial contracts, letters and loan commitments but the highlight of the day was a deal to explore for oil and gas in waters disputed by both countries.
Mr Xi and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attended the signing ceremony for all 29 agreements.
One of them, a memorandum of understanding (MOU), sought to move forward talks to tap billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea. No details were provided.
But a purported "draft framework agreement" circulated by Senator Antonio Trillanes, a top critic of Mr Duterte, showed both sides were planning to create a government-led "steering committee" and an "inter-entrepreneurial working group" to pursue joint exploration of the disputed waters.
China National Oil Offshore Corp was named in the draft as likely to take a majority stake in a possible consortium. The document circulated by the senator skirts questions over who owns the waters and the natural resources in the area .
"The joint oil and gas exploration shall not affect the respective position on sovereignty and maritime rights and interests of the two parties," it said.
Philippine nationalists have charged that if the terms are too broad, a joint exploration deal could legitimise China's claims to parts of the South China Sea which the Philippines regards as part of its exclusive economic zone.
There was also no mention of how resources will be split between the Philippines and China.
Mr Xi yesterday offered the Philippines opportunities from the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious infrastructure drive that the US has said is endangering nations with debt bondage and could compromise their independence.
"Both sides are of the view that as fellow developing countries in Asia, China and the Philippines face similar development challenges, which make us natural partners with a common destiny. The two sides will seek greater complementarity with the Belt and Road Initiative and Philippine development strategy," Mr Xi said in a speech after the signing ceremony.
He said he had invited Mr Duterte to the Second Belt and Road Forum in China next year.
Taking a swipe at the US, Mr Xi said China and the Philippines "must join hands to uphold the interests of the developing world, resist protectionism and unilateralism and promote peace, prosperity and stability in our region and beyond".
"The rules made should not be followed or bent as one sees fit and they should not be applied with double standards for selfish agendas," Mr Xi said.
"Mankind has once again reached a crossroads," he said. "Which direction should we choose? Cooperation or confrontation? Openness or closing doors. Win-win progress or a zero sum game?"
The Chinese leader was speaking just days after trading barbs with US Vice-President Mike Pence at the Apec summit in Papua New Guinea. Mr Pence had made clear there would be no let-up in President Donald Trump's policy of combating what has been denounced as China's mercantilist trade policy and intellectual property theft. The trade dispute between the two major powers has erupted into a tit-for-tat tariff war between them.
Mr Xi got a red-carpet welcome when he arrived in Manila, though critics made their presence felt.
About 200 activists held a rally in front of the Chinese consular office in the Philippine capital, with placards and banners that said: "Xi Jinping not welcome in Ph", "China out of Ph waters", and "Hands off our land and seas".
The leftist Akbayan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) party warned of "debt traps" posed by Chinese-funded projects. "It's like inviting a thief into your own home to steal more," said Akbayan head Machris Cabreros.
Philippine Twitter and Facebook feeds, meanwhile, were flooded with Winnie the Pooh memes. The fictional character has been used in the past on social media to poke fun at Mr Xi, a move that has drawn crackdowns from Beijing's censors.
A poll released ahead of Mr Xi's arrival found that most Filipinos still distrust Beijing and disapprove of the way Mr Duterte is handling the South China Sea dispute.
Many Filipinos resent Beijing's claim over most of the South China Sea, which an international tribunal ruled in 2016 was without basis.
The dispute led to a freeze in Beijing-Manila ties, but all that changed when Mr Duterte won the presidency shortly before the tribunal's judgment was handed down.
He has opted to set the key ruling aside to pursue billions worth of trade and investment from China, which many Filipinos see as a frittering away of territory that is rightfully theirs with very little payback so far.