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A protest outside the Chinese consulate in Manila last month. Photo: EPA-EFE

China hoping to rebuild ties with Philippines after angry backlash over sinking of fishing boat in South China Sea

  • President Rodrigo Duterte’s latest visit to Beijing offers a chance to mend fences but he must also defuse domestic anger over the Reef Bank incident
  • Philippine leader has said he will raise South China Sea dispute with Xi Jinping as he comes under increasing pressure from opposition politicians

China is seeking to repair relations with the Philippines ahead of a visit by President Rodrigo Duterte after a recent collision between two ships in the South China Sea resulted in the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat.

Observers said the visit could be a fence-mending exercise after the incident, in which a Chinese trawler was accused of ramming the other ship before it fled the scene, leaving 22 Filipino fishermen in the sea until a passing Vietnamese boat came to the rescue.

The incident near Reef Bank triggered a strong backlash in the Philippines, and opposition politicians demanded a stronger response to China’s increasingly assertive stance after years of increasingly warm ties under Duterte.

The visit to Beijing will be his fifth as president and he said he would use it to address all South China Sea issues, including a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that rejected China’s claim to the waters.

The decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016 triggered a serious diplomatic crisis until Duterte, who came to power a month before the ruling was delivered, visited Beijing and said he would “set aside” the ruling.

“The ruling could be a reasonable political tool for Duterte as he is halfway through his six-year term and is now under intense pressure over tensions with China in the South China Sea,” said Kang Lin, director of Hainan Institute for Regional Development and Governance.

Xu Liping, director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences centre for southeast Asian studies, said intense domestic pressure prompted by the ship’s sinking could be an “urgent factor” behind his upcoming visit to China, the second since April.

Duterte’s China development plan for South China Sea islands ‘poses security risk’ for Philippines

“The two sides will try to avoid any misunderstandings and miscalculations over the South China Sea issues ... as Duterte is now facing enormous political pressure.

“This can hardly be fully resolved by Duterte alone and a joint effort with China is also needed to ensure negative sentiment [against China] does not grow.”

Beijing has tried to play down the collision between the two ships, with the Chinese embassy in Manila insisting that the Chinese ship had tried to rescue the fishermen but fled after being “suddenly besieged by seven or eight Filipino fishing boats”.

Rodrigo Duterte said he would push Xi Jinping over plans for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. Photo: AP

Xu said Beijing may also want to review its way of handling the crisis, which had “a big room for improvement”.

“There was no apology nor explanation from the Chinese side and that’s why there has been deep negativity towards China,” Xu said.

Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based academic, said Duterte’s visit could be seen as an effort by his administration to reassure Beijing that it wants to maintain a good relationship.

Support for Philippines’ diplomatic protest against Chinese boats ‘swarming’ in disputed South China Sea

“This is about a smooth landing, about making sure the rapprochement with China is kept on track despite the tensions from the Reef Bank crisis and some of the pushback internally,” Heydarian said.

The incident has highlighted the geopolitical risks in the South China Sea, one of Asia’s most valuable sea lanes.

China and a number of Southeast Asian countries have overlapping claims to the waters and the US Navy’s activities in the waters – carrying out what it describes as freedom of navigation operations – have also been a source of contention.

On Thursday, the Philippine President accused Beijing of stalling efforts to agree a code of conduct for the South China Sea, adding that he would push his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the issue during his visit to Beijing.

The following day, Zhao Jianhua, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, said Beijing still refused to accept the 2016 ruling.

“Our position was clearly stated at the very beginning of the filing of the arbitration. And when the result of the arbitration [came out] … we also expressed that we will not accept it and we will not recognise it. And that position has not changed, and will not be changed,” Zhao said, according to ABS-CBN News.

China and Philippines need a fishing deal for the South China Sea, but can they find one?

Chinese observers also said that Beijing’s biggest concerns about the South China Sea were the actions of the US and its allies, and it has accused exterior forces of interfering in its disputes with rival claimants.

“While a code of conduct could reduce the risk of potential conflicts with claimant nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines, countries from outside the region, like the US, are not included in the CoC, and that’s where greater risks come from,” said Kang.

Heydarian said Duterte would also seek progress on Chinese pledges of investment, especially as some of the potential deals have been the subject of increasing scepticism in the country.

Suspicion has been growing about some proposed Chinese investments, including plans to develop economic and tourist facilities on three islands that have prompted the Philippine navy to warn of a potential security risk.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing seeks to mend manila ties after shipping incident