Philippines ‘focused on trade’, not South China Sea tensions with Beijing

Duterte goes easy on Beijing over maritime disputes at Asean summit in Manila

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 May, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:43pm

Manila will put South China Sea disputes aside and focus on ­expanding economic ties in its dealings with Beijing, a senior Philippine trade official said on the weekend.

The comments by Philippine Trade and Industry Secretary ­Ramon Lopez where underscored by the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, who wrapped up a regional summit without direct reference to Beijing’s island-building in the disputed waters.

Also absent from Duterte’s 25-page statement issued yesterday, a day after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila, was specific mention of the Philippines’ landmark arbitration victory against Beijing’s South China Sea claims last year.

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“We took note of concerns ­expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area,” the statement said, without specifying what the developments were. “We reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance ­mutual trust and confidence ... without resorting to the threat or use of force.”

It said the summit “took note of the improving cooperation ­between Asean and China” and “welcomed the progress to ­complete a framework of the code of conduct in the South China Sea by middle of this year”.

On the summit’s sidelines, Lopez said Duterte had “developed friendship” with China on his trip to Beijing in October, and such friendship had “opened many doors to the Philippines”.

“We still have differences over the South China Sea. The wisdom is to put this issue aside and talk about business and strengthening economic ties,” he said. “It’s not about getting a donation and fighting back in the ­future.”

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China had earlier pledged US$15 billion in investment in the Philippines and financing for 15 infrastructure projects, including two railways, a hydroelectric dam and an irrigation system.

Lopez said the Chinese government would send technical ­experts to help Philippine products meet Chinese standards.

“That’s a real difference when comparing to the past, when ­Beijing simply cut the amount or suspend ... exports,” he said.

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Philippine Senator Alan Peter Cayetano said the Duterte administration wanted to maintain positive relations with more countries.

George Siy, from the Association of Young Filipino-Chinese Entrepreneurs, said it would take time for economic cooperation to gain momentum.

He said China had offered to import more fruit from the Philippines and expand tourism. But it would take time to ramp up fruit production and upgrade airports to accommodate more visitors from China, he said.