Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Philippines as relations between two sides warm
Chinese leader likely to visit by end of year as Rodrigo Duterte’s administration looks at ways of easing tensions over disputed South China Sea
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the Philippines before the end of the year in the latest sign of improved relations between the two sides, the foreign minister of the Southeast Asian nation said.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said also that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had approved a proposal to form a group to study plans for the two countries to conduct a joint exploration in the disputed South China Sea.
“We’re now fixing the date [of Xi’s visit]. We’re looking at the latter part of the year,” Cayetano was quoted as saying by local broadcaster GMA Network.
Both sides “wanted it to happen”, he said.
The trip would be Xi’s first visit to the Philippines since Duterte took office. The Philippine president invited his Chinese counterpart to Manila during his state visit to Beijing in October 2016.
Cayetano did not say if Xi’s trip would be a state or official visit.
“This has been an invitation from their first meeting. They accepted it right away. But we are finding the right time. When presidents at this level meet there are a lot of preparations and a lot of things that they want to announce,” he said.
Relations between China and the Philippines soured when Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino took their dispute over the South China Sea to an international tribunal in The Hague, which ruled against Beijing.
But Duterte has since tried to mend ties, while China has pledged to boost investment in the Philippines and donated military equipment such as guns and patrol boats.
However, a long-running dispute over the Spratly Islands, where China’s military build up has prompted frequent protests from Manila, remains unresolved.
As well as the Philippines and mainland China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have claims to the South China Sea.
On the joint exploration proposal, Cayetano said: “Our job is to provide a framework acceptable to both the Philippines and China.”
The government officials, academics and private sector representatives in the group studying the idea would have a draft ready within the next two months, he said.
Xu Liping, a professor at the Institute of Asian-Pacific Studies, which comes under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the political trust developed between China and the Philippines would help them to reach agreement on the joint exploration plan.
“Joint exploration requires political trust,” he said. “Now is the best time to do it, with the smooth progress over the negotiations for a code of conduct for the South China Sea.”
But Zhang Mingliang, a specialist on Southeast Asian affairs at Jinan University, said the wariness of Manila’s elite towards Duterte’s close ties with China meant that the project could yet face opposition, as did a similar plan, which was eventually aborted, when Gloria Arroyo was president.
“It is likely that the project will be realised during Duterte’s term in office, but many challenges lie ahead,” he said.
The proposed areas for joint exploration were likely to fall within China’s nine dash line and therefore create controversy, he said.
“The project under Arroyo faced huge opposition and accusations over the lack of transparency and conflicts of interests … similar concerns may arise under Duterte.”