Benigno Aquino

Xi did not talk down to me like ‘elder brother’, Aquino says of Apec chat

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 April, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 November, 2015, 1:08pm

President Xi Jinping did not talk like he was an “elder brother” and seemed “very sincere” during a meeting in Beijing in November, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has said.

During their 10-minute conversation on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, Xi also acknowledged that “because of the South China Sea, we had regretful developments” and looked forward to turning a new page in bilateral relations, according to notes of the conversation Aquino released exclusively to the South China Morning Post.

It is the first time details of the conversation – which took place amid tension over their territorial dispute in the South China Sea - have emerged.

INFOGRAPHIC: Territorial disputes between China and the Philippines

Recounting the informal dialogue in an interview last Thursday, Aquino said of Xi: “There seemed to be a sincere effort to try to address this situation within the context of all our constraints.”

Asked to describe the Chinese leader, Aquino paused and framed his answer carefully:   “He seemed very sincere. Parang [It’s like] how should I explain it? I don’t want to commit a diplomatic faux pas. Let me comment first on his leadership. He seems to be in the same mould as I am. When I entered office, I reminded myself I have six years to effect the changes I want to effect.

“Now, he, I think, is moving at a very, very fast pace to address the concerns that they have in regard to the [Communist] party in China, the party in relation to its populace, the corruption efforts. The reining in of various diverse – shall we say, factions within their society. Of course he has to adhere also to their systems. But, you know, when he did talk to me, he didn’t talk to me like an elder brother. He didn’t.”

According to the notes of the meeting, Xi thanked Aquino for taking part in the Beijing summit. The Philippine president responded: “Despite the cold [weather], we feel the warmth of your hospitality. We hope for your support in our hosting [of Apec] next year.”

Xi replied: “We will support your hosting next year and wish you success.”

“Because of the South China Sea, we had regretful developments. We hope that both sides will return to previous engagements and constructive engagement and look forward to turning a new page,” Xi said.

Aquino closed by saying: “We share this and look forward to constructive engagement.”

Aquino then thanked Xi for “the opportunity to start the process of a better relationship”.

While there has been no formal word on whether Xi will attend the Apec meeting in the Philippines in November, Aquino said Xi’s expression of support meant the Chinese leader was coming.

He said he personally invited Xi to come. “And personally when I invited him during that short dialogue, I did mention we hoped for their support, to which they pledged their support.”

Asked whether the country wanted good relations with China, Aquino replied: “We want good relations with everybody. I go back to the fundamental premise. Our job is not to fight with anybody … Our job is to improve the lot of our people. Fighting with somebody does not normally lend itself to improving the lot of any of our citizens.”

The last Chinese leaders to visit Manila were then-president Hu Jintao in 2005 and then-premier Wen Jiabao in 2007, during a time both countries dubbed as “the golden age” of Sino-Philippine relations.

When Aquino was elected president in 2010, among his early visitors was then-Chinese ambassador Liu Jianchao. “At that time I think the prevailing sentiment was bound in a statement that said something like ‘let us not have the dispute in the South China Sea be the be-all and end-all of our relationship’. And that was reiterated during my state visit [in 2011],” Aquino said.

Relations soured a year later over the tense stand-off at Scarborough Shoal, triggered by Manila’s arrest of Chinese poachers, the harassment of Filipino fishermen by Chinese vessels and by the appearance of Manila’s latest refurbished warship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, in the area. Aquino said the ship just happened to be in transit on a mission to monitor a North Korean satellite launch.

In 2012, Aquino tried to mend relations by sending Mar Roxas, his ruling Liberal Party chief, to meet Xi, who was then vice-president. Since then, Aquino said, there had been no back-channel talks.

In 2013, the Aquino government filed a legal challenge over China’s claims in the South China Sea defined by the so-called “nine-dash line”. China has refused to take part in the proceedings, which are before an ad hoc arbitral tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.