The president-elect of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, said on Sunday that he wanted friendly relations with China and confirmed he was open to direct talks over a territorial row that has badly damaged bilateral ties. “Well, ties have never been cold. But I would rather be friendly with everybody,” Duterte told reporters in the southern city of Davao when asked whether he wanted closer ties with China than seen under current President Benigno Aquino. Duterte met China’s ambassador to Manila on Monday, his first day of public appearances since winning last week’s election by a landslide. “We had a very good conversation,” Ambassador Zhao Jianhuasaid after the meeting. “The Chinese side is looking forward [to working with] him and his team to further enhance our bilateral relationship.” Relations between China and the Philippines worsened sharply throughout Aquino’s six-year term over conflicting claims to parts of the South China Sea, one of the world’s most strategically important waterways. China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. To enforce its claims, China has in recent years turned contested reefs into artificial islands. In 2012, China also took control of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing area within the Philippines’ economic exclusive zone. The Aquino administration responded by signing a new defence pact with the United States and filing a legal challenge with a United Nations tribunal asking it to rule that the Chinese claims to most of the sea were invalid, a move that has infuriated Beijing. Duterte, who will be sworn in on June 30, plans to continue raising the dispute in multilateral environments, but he repeated an election pledge to hold direct talks with Beijing if all else failed.