Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping agreed during their first-ever meeting that South China Sea disputes should not narrowly define the bilateral relationship, officials said Friday.
The presidents met Thursday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, meetings in Bangkok, where they discussed the need to finish negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the disputed waterway.
Marcos and Xi said the COC was necessary “to help manage differences and regional tensions,” the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a news release Friday, according to BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service.
Maritime disputes between Manila and Beijing “do not define the totality of Philippines-China relations,” the leaders concurred, according to the news release.
“Our foreign policy refuses to fall into the trap of a Cold War mindset. Ours is an independent foreign policy guided by our national interest and commitment to peace,” said Marcos, who was elected president in May. He is the son of the late former Philippine dictator, Ferdinand E. Marcos, a staunch U.S. ally during the Cold War.
During the ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh last week, Marcos called on fellow Southeast Asian leaders to adopt the code for the South China Sea. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China have been negotiating a code for years but without success.
The COC is expected to help settle overlapping claims in the mineral-rich South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirety on historical grounds. ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, have their own claims.
In 2016, an international tribunal invalidated China’s sweeping claims but Beijing ignored the ruling.
Commenting on the South China Sea after their meeting, Xi said the “two sides must stick to friendly consultation and handle differences and disputes properly,” according to a news release from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“As two developing countries in Asia, China and the Philippines need to keep strategic independence, uphold peace, openness and inclusiveness, and stay the course of regional cooperation,” Xi said. “They should work together to reject unilateralism and acts of bullying, defend fairness and justice, and safeguard peace and stability in the region.”
Tensions have arisen between the two countries with Filipino officials complaining in recent years about aggressive behavior by Chinese Coast Guard ships and fishing boats intruding in waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
On other topics, Marcos highlighted the need for enhanced economic and development partnerships. Among the areas discussed were agriculture, infrastructure, energy, people-to-people ties, and pandemic response.
The Philippine president thanked Xi for China’s donation of COVID-19 vaccines and 20,000 tons of fertilizer.
Discussing infrastructure efforts between the two nations, Xi cited a project to construct a bridge to connect Davao city with Samal island in the southern Philippines. The project is funded through a loan from China, according to a news release from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The proposed location for the bridge is facing opposition from environmentalists who warn that it could harm a large reef in the area.
Rail project derailed
In June, Marcos succeeded President Rodrigo Duterte, who pursued warmer ties between Beijing and Manila during his six-year term. The two nations had touted the $1.5 billion first phase of the Mindanao Railway Project in southern Philippines, but the project got derailed after Manila announced it had canceled a Chinese loan deal because of Beijing’s longtime inaction and high interest rates.
For his part, Xi told Marcos that China was open to increasing imports of agricultural products, citing the possibility of allowing durian fruit from the Philippines to Chinese markets.
Their meeting in the Thai capital took place days after Marcos’ office announced that he had accepted Xi’s invitation for a state visit to China in early January.
During a speech to Congress in July, Marcos publicly promised to protect the country’s territory and sovereignty, while also describing China as the Philippines’ “strongest ally.”
He pledged then to discuss the issue “with a firm voice” even as he acknowledged that Manila was at a disadvantage militarily against Beijing.
Meeting U.S. leaders
As leader of the Philippines, Marcos has already met in person with U.S. President Joe Biden. The U.S. is China’s superpower rival.
Next week, the Philippine leader will be hosting U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.
Harris will travel from Bangkok to Manila on Sunday evening and meet with Vice President Sara Duterte on Monday ahead of a longer meeting with Marcos, according to a senior administration official at the White House. The meeting with Marcos is to focus on strengthening the security alliance and economic relationship.
On Tuesday, Harris is scheduled to visit Palawan, an island on the frontline of the Philippines’ territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
“This visit demonstrates the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to stand with our Philippine ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea, supporting maritime livelihoods, and countering illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing,” the official said, according to a transcript released by the White House.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.