China is ready to “cordially” settle its maritime affairs with the Philippines, China’s President Xi Jinping reportedly said yesterday after a meeting with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Beijing.
Citing Chinese state media, Reuters reported today that Xi also told Marcos that China is ready to resume negotiations on joint exploration for oil and gas resources in non-disputed areas of the South China Sea and cooperate with the Philippines on solar and wind energy . and increasing imports of Philippine fishery products.
Marcos left for China on Tuesday with a large business delegation in tow, claiming he hopes to kick the two nations’ sometimes strained relations into a “higher gear”. The visit was marred by ongoing friction in parts of the South China Sea claimed by both nations, mostly prompted by the incursion of Chinese Coast Guard and naval militia ships and the associated strengthening of Manila’s ties with the United States.
The Philippines has repeatedly complained about Beijing’s maritime assertiveness, which increased even under President Rodrigo Duterte, who downplayed maritime disputes in hopes of garnering much-needed Chinese support for infrastructure build-out. In 2018, Manila and Beijing signed an agreement to jointly explore for oil and gas resources in both disputed waters within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and “uncontested” waters belonging to the Philippines. The accord has been widely criticized within the Philippines for ignoring the landmark 2016 arbitration ruling that asserted the Philippines’ sovereign rights to exploit energy reserves within its 200-nautical-mile EEZ
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Last June, however, Duterte ended negotiations for joint energy exploration in the South China Sea, with then-Secretary of State Teodoro Locsin saying the Philippines wanted to develop those resources, but “not at the price of sovereignty.” Not even a morsel of it.”
Before leaving on Tuesday, Marcos said he would raise the issue with Xi and that they would “try to resolve these issues for the mutual benefit of our two countries.”
The visit appears to have yielded some achievements, as a joint communiqué released today by China’s Foreign Ministry said the two sides have agreed to establish direct channels of communication on South China Sea issues and to deal peacefully with any disputes that arise.
This was perhaps the most significant of the 14 bilateral agreements signed during Marcos’ three-day visit, which included “agreements on agriculture, infrastructure, development cooperation, maritime security and tourism,” among others, according to the Philippine presidential office. ”
According to another statement from his office, Marcos also said he received Xi’s promise for a compromise that could allow Filipino fishermen to operate in their historic fishing grounds after repeated reports that they had been pushed out by Chinese vessels . “On the political front, we also talked about what we can do to move forward to avoid possible mistakes and misunderstandings that could trigger a bigger problem than what we already have,” Marcos added.
Overall, Marcos said he was “very optimistic” during his historic meeting with Xi, saying the Chinese leader “seems genuinely interested in all these issues and finding a way to move forward to improve China-Philippines relations.” to strengthen again. ”
While these represent promising developments in China-Philippines relations – and it’s certainly hard to imagine Marcos taking home much more today – it’s hard to say exactly what long-term implications they will have. As I noted in an article yesterday, the Duterte administration, led by a politician who has both political and personal grievances against the United States, provided perhaps the most favorable context for bilateral relations with China to thrive. Relations, however, stagnated as most of the expected economic bounty failed to materialize while China maintained its pattern of penetration into the Philippines’ EEZ.
Therefore, there are good reasons to await further developments before announcing a new era in Philippines-China relations.