PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday vowed anew not to unsettle Beijing over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute, claiming China wants to help the Philippines without anything in return.

Duterte said that he won’t raise the dispute during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the sidelines of a Beijing-led economic cooperation forum that opens today.

“One thing is very certain actually: China, in all good faith, wants to help us. And they are not asking for anything. No conditions,” Duterte told Filipino workers in Hong Kong ahead of his scheduled meeting with Xi on Monday.

Duterte said he would rather focus on seeking economic cooperation and aid.

The President is in Beijing to attend the “Belt and Road” Initiative Forum called by President Xi.

“This [One Belt and Road Initiative] is the strategy of President Xi Jinping for the prosperity in this region, the Asean Community, and to the world. Mainly because I think there are about [29] heads of states attending this meeting and I was one of those lucky to be invited and I am sure that what we will talk about will really be how to improve the economy of the world,” Duterte said.

The President then thanked China for helping the Philippines improve its economy.

“Remember there was a time our exports were not accepted here... until I declared that I am veering away…and chart my own independent agreements regarding trade and commerce to anybody who would want to talk to us,” Duterte said.

Duterte’s visit to Beijing comes as Chinese militarization and reclamation activities continue in the South China Sea despite China’s defeat to the Philippines in the landmark arbitration case on the maritime row in July 2016.

China has consistently ignored the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal’s ruling that invalidated its “nine-dash line” claim over nearly all of the waters. The Philippines initiated the legal case under the Aquino administration.

In the Philippines’ recent hosting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the 10-nation bloc’s joint statement called for the observance of principles under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The statement, however, did not mention continuing Chinese incursions in the waters and the Philippines’ legal victory.

Bilateral consultations to begin

In a news conference in Beijing, Philippine Ambassador to Beijing Jose Santa Romana announced that the Philippines and China would begin long-stalled talks on the South China Sea dispute this week.

“The first session will be the first step in a long journey…That is first step to resolve what seems to be an unbridgeable gap,” Santa Romana told reporters on Saturday.

He said the first meeting would take place at the sidelines of an Asean meeting with China, a special event initiated and arranged by Beijing following the Asean summit held in Manila last month.

Santa Romana and newly designated Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano have said that President Duterte was employing not just diplomacy but “strategic” ways to resolve the West Philippine Sea dispute.

“The first session will really cover the terms of reference, the basics, try to draw out an agenda,” he said, adding that among those set to attend are Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua and Filipino

foreign affairs officials led by Cayetano.

During the Asean Summit chaired by the Philippines, the regions’ leaders did not issue a strong statement against the reclamation of several reefs in the West Philippine Sea being also claimed partly by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Asean countries are looking forward to a framework of the Code of Conduct of the South China Sea, which is expected to limit, if not stop, China’s aggressive buildup in the waters.

“We have to clarify what is our position on the issue, and for the Chinese to clarify their position on a certain issue is at least a first step in trying to understand where the difference lies,” Santa Romana said.

“It will be an exchange of views. At least, you are able to communicate, not through a megaphone but in a room where the two sides will meet, not open to the media but at least where they can speak directly to each other and try to understand,” he added.

Santa Romana clarified that the Philippines is not setting aside the July 2016 arbitral ruling.

“If you put the disputes in the front and center, the result is the relations will be frozen because the disputes cannot be solved overnight…The basic approach of the Duterte administration is to use it in separate tracks, open an area where there are no disputes, promoting economics, trade, commerce, cultural exchange,” said Santa Romana, a former journalist based in Beijing.

“Putting it in a separate track is not to abandon it, but it’s compartmentalizing,” he added.