Beijing and Manila to discuss South China Sea dispute

Foreign ministry says first bilateral talks on disputed waters planned for May, as it also invites the Philippine coastguard for a visit

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 11:37pm

Beijing has invited the Philippine coastguard to visit China, and the two countries will hold their first bilateral talks on the disputed South China Sea in May, the ­foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

“China is willing to strengthen dialogue with the Philippines to properly manage and control ­differences and advance ­maritime cooperation, to create a favourable condition for ­pragmatic cooperation,” ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said.

The coastguard was invited to visit China at an early date, Hua said, and cooperation between the maritime forces would inject “new vitality” into bilateral ties.

China dismisses Philippine concerns over marine activities

China has been acting assertively in making its claims to the South China Sea, triggering a backlash among its Southeast Asian neighbours.

On Monday, the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies said China had nearly completed building three islands in the disputed waters, giving it the ability to ­deploy combat aircraft and other military assets.

The islands – Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs – are part of the Spratly chain. On each of them, China has constructed enough concrete hangers for 24 fighter jets and four or five larger planes, such as bombers or early warning aircraft.

Other claimants to the disputed waters, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have lodged protests over China’s move.

Philippines to protest China’s plan to build on disputed shoal

The Philippines even took the dispute to an international tribunal in The Hague, which rejected Beijing’s claims to the waters last July.

But relations between Beijing and Manila have improved in recent months, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte paying a state visit to China in October.

Song Junying, an observer of Southeast Asian affairs at the China Institute of International Studies, said inviting the coastguard would deepen mutual trust between China and the Philippines after the tribunal ruling.

“It signals China wants to ­cooperate with nations with competing maritime interests. Such an arrangement can be adopted with other Southeast Asian ­nations, which can cool down tensions in the hotly contested waters,” Song said.

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Dai Fan, a Southeast Asian affairs analyst at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said the Philippine coastguard played a major role in defending the country’s territorial waters because its navy was ­already obsolete.

”It can pave the way for China to improve ties with the Philippine military,” he said. “China needs to have a closer relationship with the Philippine navy if Beijing really wants to pull Manila into its orbit, and cooperating with coastguards is a good start.”

But some observers have questioned how far the improving Sino-Philippine relations can go, as senior officials in Manila have been contradicting Duterte by stressing the Philippine-US ­defence alliance.

Philippine defence officials have also underscored the ­perceived threats from Chinese maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean.

Additional reporting by Associated Press