Beijing and Manila yesterday agreed to improve ties recently strained by territorial disputes over the South China Sea as visiting Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Sino-Philippine relations ranked among the most important for his country. Aquino and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao presided over the signing of nine agreements, covering areas including investment, trade, sports, tourism, culture and aid, on the first day of Aquino's first state visit to China. Hu said the agreements would elevate bilateral relations to a new level. However, in an indication that sensitivities over territorial disputes in the South China Sea may linger, Hu stressed China's 'persistent stance' on the issue, saying the disputes should be sorted out only through bilateral negotiation and consultation, Xinhua said. 'China has always insisted that the South China Sea disputes should be resolved peacefully through consultation and negotiation between the two countries concerned,' Xinhua quoted Hu as saying, but added that, as a conciliatory gesture, China had vowed to turn the South China Sea into an area of 'peace, friendship and co-operation'. Aquino's spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, quoted him as saying 'that the West Philippine Sea issue is not the be all and end all' of relations between China and the Philippines. 'The president also mentioned the position of the Philippine government, that, because this is a regional problem, it requires a regional solution,' Lacierda said. 'Both sides were very positive in addressing the issue on the South China Sea.' Aquino is leading a delegation of 300 businessmen on a four-day visit during which the two nations are expected to agree on a five-year plan to boost trade six-fold to US$60 billion. China is the Philippines' third-largest trading partner, behind the United States and Japan. Aquino's visit follows months of tensions over the South China Sea, with Manila accusing Beijing of harassing an oil survey ship and Beijing charging that recent construction work by Philippine troops on an island claimed by Manila violated the spirit of a preliminary agreement reached in Indonesia in July with other Southeast Asian nations. Hu said China was willing to work with the Philippines to implement the Declaration on the Code of Conduct agreed to in Indonesia and that countries involved should set aside disputes to examine the possibilities of joint exploration. Aquino said the disputes should not affect bilateral ties, Xinhua reported. Analysts said Aquino was paying more attention to ties with China because Japan was plagued by economic woes and political instability and the United States was facing a debt crisis. However, some warned that Beijing would not take Aquino's friendly remarks too seriously. 'Tensions between Beijing and Manila may ease a little [after Aquino's visit] but in the long run, the disputes will still come up.' said Du Jifeng, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences think tank. 'The US is still the chief ally of the Philippines.'