South China Sea not on Apec agenda, Manila assures Beijing

Xi can expect warm welcome when he visits Philippines for Apec summit next week, says Aquino

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (far left) making a courtesy call on Philippine President Benigno Aquino (at right) in Manila yesterday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (far left) making a courtesy call on Philippine President Benigno Aquino (at right) in Manila yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Philippines said it will not discuss the South China Sea issue at next week's Apec leaders' meeting, promising instead a "safe, comfortable and productive" visit for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose told a news briefing yesterday China "expressed hope that contentious issues will not be raised" at the Apec summit that Manila is hosting from Nov 16-19.

"We said that we'll endeavour on our side to do everything possible that Mr Xi's visit will be safe, comfortable and productive," he said.

He explained that the Philippines will not raise the South China Sea issue because of an arbitration case pending in an international court at The Hague and that Apec was "not the proper forum".

The Philippines is accusing China of violating international laws by claiming nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters that are 1,611km from the Chinese coastline and closer to its smaller neighbours.

Mr Jose also said Manila "recognises that the Apec summit is not the proper forum to discuss this issue".

That echoes comments from a senior diplomat in Beijing.

"Everyone knows that Apec is primarily about discussing trade and financial cooperation in the Asia-Pacific," Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Li Baodong told reporters.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino assured visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi yesterday that Mr Xi can expect a warm welcome when he is in Manila for the Nov 18-19 Apec Economic Leaders' Meeting.

"He assured (Mr Wang) that it is in the culture of Filipinos as hosts to make our guests feel the warmth of Filipino hospitality," presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma told reporters.

Mr Wang was on a one-day working visit to the Philippines ahead of the Apec summit, his trip marking the first high-level contact between Manila and Beijing in four years.

Mr Xi's visit next week offers another rare opportunity for Manila and Beijing to mend diplomatic relations that have plummeted in recent years over their rival claims to parts of the South China Sea.

Beijing had bristled over remarks Mr Aquino had made in a New York Times interview that he repeated in Tokyo in June, likening today's China to Nazi Germany.

Mr Aquino and Mr Xi met informally for about 10 minutes during last year's Apec summit in Beijing. That meeting, where both leaders expressed their intentions to settle territorial disputes in a "constructive way", had been expected to lead to a thaw in icy bilateral ties.

But tensions escalated anew after China stepped up its land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, where it has so far created islands with airstrips and garrisons on seven reefs that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago.

Mr Jose said "there was no confirmation" that the two leaders would hold bilateral talks or "an informal chat".

"But the door is always open for dialogue. It's possible," he said.

Mr Wang and his Filipino counterpart Albert del Rosario agreed to hold talks that will build on views exchanged between Mr Aquino and then Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2011 that the South China Sea dispute "should not be the end-all and be-all" of the two countries' ties.

Mr Jose said the Philippines will raise the South China Sea issue during the Asean summit to be held in Kuala Lumpur just after the Apec meetings.

The Philippines will press China to resume talks on a "code of conduct" meant to keep the peace in the South China Sea, he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2015, with the headline South China Sea not on Apec agenda, Manila assures Beijing. Subscribe