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Philippines: Xi, Duterte agree to ‘positive engagements’ over South China Sea

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping agreed during a bilateral meeting on Friday to remain “committed to broaden the space for positive engagements” in dealing with disputes over the South China Sea. 

The telephone summit between the two leaders took place the same day the Philippines and the United States wrapped up two weeks of war games, which were among the biggest between both allies. The scenarios included the defense of an isolated island from foreign invaders. 

In their phone call, Duterte and Xi “stressed the need to exert all efforts to maintain peace, security and stability in the South China Sea by exercising restraint, dissipating tensions and working on a mutually agreeable framework for functional cooperation,” Duterte’s office said in a statement.

“Both leaders acknowledged that even while disputes existed, both sides remained committed to broaden the space for positive engagements which reflected the dynamic and multidimensional relations of the Philippines and China,” it said.

The statement described the hour-long telephone conversation as “open, warm and positive.”

China has been continuing to expand territories and islands it occupies in the South China Sea.

Still, Xi and Duterte affirmed the “importance of continuing” talks in solving the sea dispute, and for all claimants to work towards finally concluding a “code of conduct” for the sea.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone as well.

Duterte, who has consistently called Xi a “friend,” has said several times since his term began in 2016 that Beijing has the capability of sending missiles to the Philippines, and that he won’t deploy Filipino troops to be slaughtered.

Instead, he has sought to rebuild ties with China – ties that were soured by a 2016 decision by an international arbitration court in The Hague that rejected China’s expansive claims in the contested waterway. The 77-year-old Duterte will be leaving office after the Philippine general election next month.

Duterte and Xi also discussed the elevation of bilateral relations “into a comprehensive strategic cooperation” as a way to build on the gains made since the Filipino leader took power.

For his part, Xi said that both sides have “properly” handled the South China Sea issue, according to a statement about the phone call, issued by the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

“During the phone conversation, Xi said that he still has fresh memories about Duterte’s first visit to China in October 2016, which he called an ice-breaking trip and a milestone in the history of bilateral relations,” the statement said.

“The two sides’ properly handling of the South China Sea issue has provided an important foundation for the China-Philippines friendly cooperation, benefited the two people and also effectively safeguarded regional peace and stability, Xi said,” according to the statement.

Meanwhile, both presidents on Friday expressed “deep concern” over developments in Ukraine, the statement by Duterte’s office said.

“The two Presidents renewed the call for a peaceful resolution of the situation through dialogue in accordance with international law,” the statement said.

A day before the Xi-Duterte telephone meeting, Manila voted in support of a resolution on suspending Russia from the United Nations Humans Rights Council, together with the U.S. and other Western countries.

China, which is Russia’s ally, voted against the resolution.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.