China and the Philippines have agreed to set up a direct communications channel on the South China Sea and to handle disputes over the contested waterway “through peaceful means”, according to a joint statement by the two countries.
The agreement on Thursday came a day after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing amid efforts to mend a relationship that has been strained by Manila’s decision in 2016 to seek an arbitral ruling on China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
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The United Nations tribunal invalidated China’s claims, but Beijing has rejected the ruling.
Since then, Manila has continued to raise concerns over reported Chinese construction activities on islands in the South China Sea – as well as the transformation of disputed reefs into artificial islands – and “swarming” by Beijing’s vessels in the disputed waters, which are rich in oil, gas and fishery resources.
The joint statement on Thursday said Xi and Marcos had an “in-depth and candid exchange of views on the situation in the South China Sea” and “emphasized that maritime issues do not comprise the sum-total of relations between the two countries”.
The two leaders also “agreed to appropriately manage differences through peaceful means”.
Both countries reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace and stability as well as freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, and establish “a direct communication mechanism” between their foreign ministries, the statement added.
Marcos’s three-day trip to Beijing, his first official visit to China as president, comes as the country re-emerges from a self-imposed border shutdown since the pandemic started in 2020 which has disrupted trade and hurt its economy.
The Philippine president is the first foreign leader hosted by China in 2023, and this “speaks volumes about the close ties” between the two countries, Xi told Marcos, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.
In a video address released by his office on Wednesday, Marcos said both sides discussed “what we can do to move forward, to avoid possible mistakes, misunderstandings that could trigger a bigger problem than what we already have”.
Marcos also said he made the case for Filipino fishermen who have been denied access to their traditional areas of operation by China’s navy and coastguard.
“The president [Xi] promised that we would find a compromise and find a solution that will be beneficial so that our fishermen might be able to fish again in their natural fishing grounds,” he said.
The joint statement added that the coastguards of China and the Philippines would meet “as soon as possible” to discuss “pragmatic cooperation”, and said that the two countries will hold an annual dialogue on security.
Both sides also agreed to resume talks on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, it said, and discussed cooperation on areas including solar, wind, electric vehicles and nuclear power.
On the economic front, China agreed to import more goods from the Philippines with the aim for bilateral trade to revert to or surpass pre-pandemic levels. The two sides are finalising rules for imports of fruits from the Philippines, which Marcos said would start to balance the trade.
Both sides also promised to boost tourist numbers and flights between both capitals, the statement said.
Last year, only about 9,500 Chinese visited the Philippines, down from about 1.6 million before the pandemic.