THE Philippines and China have agreed to set up a mechanism on how to “properly handle” maritime disputes and representatives from both countries will meet in May to craft a bilateral scheme, Malacañang said on Tuesday.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua and President Rodrigo Duterte discussed the issue during a meeting in Davao City on Monday.
“He (Zhao) conveyed that China looks forward to the convening in May 2017 of the first meeting of the bilateral mechanism set up to properly handle the SCS [South China Sea] issue,” Abella told reporters.
“Through this bilateral mechanism, mutual trust and maritime cooperation will be forged and misunderstandings will be avoided,” he added.
Duterte is set to visit China again in May for the “One Belt, One Road” summit upon the invitation of President Xi Jinping. Duterte first visited China in October last year.
In his meeting with Duterte, Zhao reiterated China’s “determination” to cooperate with Asean to tackle the completion of the code of conduct, Abella said.
“Zhao expressed China’s determination to work with Asean member states in finalizing the Code of Conduct Framework on the South China Sea middle of this year,” he said.
The Asean is composed of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore,
Thailand and Vietnam. Four Asean members – Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam – are claiming parts of the SCS, while China and Taiwan are claiming most of its features.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said that China will host a meeting in May with members of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to discuss the completion of a framework on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which mandates self-restraint and non-militarization in the contested waters.
Abella said Zhao also acknowledged the “successful” meeting of Philippine and Chinese coast guards.
“He looks forward to the Philippine Coast Guard delegation’s visit to China to hammer out actions, activities and new engagements to ensure that SCS is a sea of cooperation,” the Palace official said.
Abella added that China was looking forward to the resumption of a bilateral defense cooperation with the Philippines as well as the completion of projects funded by Beijing.
“Zhao hoped that the infrastructure projects in the pipeline will soon be launched, implemented, and completed within the term of [Duterte],” he said. “Zhao reported that China hopes for Philippines to soon utilize donations for anti-poverty.”
Duterte’s refusal to flaunt the ruling of an arbitral tribunal that invalidated China’s sea claims based on its nine-dash-line policy had thawed the once icy relations between Beijing and Manila.
The President also admitted early this month that he allowed Chinese ships to pass through Benham Rise.
Despite fears on China’s militarization at the South China Sea, Duterte had doggedly refused confront China about its construction activities in some disputed islands, saying he will discuss the matter at an auspicious time.
“Let’s not fight about ownership and sovereignty at this time. Things are going great for my country,” the President said earlier.
For civilian use
China also denied militarizing the disputed South China Sea, insisting that defense equipment Beijing has installed on artificial islands is “primarily” for civilian use.
“Even if there is a certain amount of defense equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation,” Premier Li Keqiang said when he visited Canberra last week.
“Because without such freedom, or without stability in the South China Sea, the Chinese side would be among the first to bear the brunt of it.”
Li said China “never has any intention to engage in militarization in the South China Sea,” adding installations — which include airstrips and missile batteries — are “primarily for civilian purposes.”
Li said aircraft and ships that transit through the South China Sea were from trading partners with Beijing, “so one can easily imagine how many Chinese interests are at stake here.”
Australia has followed key ally the United States in carrying out several so-called “Freedom of Navigation” over-flights and sail-bys in the region, which China previously described as “provocations.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has also said the building of artificial islands and possible militarization by China create regional mistrust.