Chinese President Xi Jinping has offered to open talks on a joint gas and oil exploration deal with the Philippines, as he pledged to make relations with Manila a diplomatic priority. Meeting Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr on Wednesday, Xi said the two countries should work together to become a stabilising force in the region. It is Marcos’s first visit to China since he succeeded Rodrigo Duterte as president in June, although he and Xi met in Bangkok in November on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. The trip is seen as crucial to China’s efforts to stop a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations getting closer to the United States amid the heightened rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Xi played up his personal connections with Marcos, and complimented his father, former president Ferdinand Marcos Snr, who established formal diplomatic ties with China in his presidency. Another former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo , who is now the deputy speaker of the Philippine House, also formed part of the delegation – something Marcos said had helped with the tone of the meeting. “[Xi] was also very surprised to meet his old friend, president GMA [Macapagal-Arroyo], who accompanied me,” Marcos said in a video statement released to the media after the meeting. “And they had a few minutes of recollecting the meetings that they have had, which I think helped the tone of the meeting.” Marcos visits China after bringing US-Philippine ties to ‘comfortable’ level Xi said China paid high regard to its relations with the Philippines, and he would maintain regular strategic communications with Marcos. “The two nations should be good neighbours who help each other,” he said, according to state broadcaster CCTV. “The two nations can bring more benefits to the people of the two countries and contribute more positive energy to regional peace and stability”. Officials from the two nations signed a series of cooperation agreements on infrastructure, financial, tourism and electronic commerce following the talks. Xi also said China is willing to settle its maritime disputes with the Philippines through consultation – but did not mention the South China Sea directly. “China is willing to resume oil and gas exploration negotiations, and promote oil and gas development cooperation in non-disputed areas,” Xi said. The South China Sea , dispute has long been a barrier to improved relations and Marcos has said he will uphold an 2016 international arbitration ruling that Beijing’s claim over almost all the waterway is illegal. Beijing has refused to recognise the court’s decision. There have already been multiple protests from Manila over the activities of Chinese vessels in the disputed waters since he took office. Last month Manila accused dozens of Chinese boats of “swarming” the South China Sea and also filed a diplomatic protest to Beijing over a Chinese coastguard ship that the Philippine military said had used force to retrieve a piece of rocket that was being towed by a Philippine vessel. Earlier on Wednesday Marcos said looked forward to “years of opportunity” for the two countries. Marcos painted a rosy picture of bilateral relations in his meeting with Li Zhanshu, the No 3 in China’s hierarchy. Beijing trip to test Philippine leader as South China Sea disputes loom “I have always stated that the partnerships between [the Philippines and China] in the next few years will … stabilise and strengthen all our economies, so that we are able to face challenges and the different shocks that we are now beginning to feel and will continue to feel in the next few years,” he said, according to Philippine news agency GMA News. Marcos has largely been seen as more inclined to pursue a balanced relationship with the US and China – which are vying for greater influence in the region – compared with his predecessor, who sought to loosen the long-standing relationship with Washington. He has also met his US counterpart Joe Biden, during a visit to New York in September for a UN meeting. The two leaders struck a conciliatory tone, agreeing to put aside past disagreements and strengthen their long-standing security relationship as military allies. Marcos assured Biden that “we are your partners, we are your allies, we are your friends” while the US leader reaffirmed Washington’s “ironclad commitment to the defence of the Philippines”.