MANILA Chinese President Xi Jinping promised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that Beijing would not build structures on a rocky outcrop in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said on Thursday.
Frosty ties between the two countries have improved as Duterte shifts away from traditional ally the United States and closer to Beijing, though the news came a day after China’s commerce minister postponed an official trip to the Philippines.
Yasay said Xi’s pledge was made during a meeting with Duterte in Beijing in October, after Manila raised the issue, in response to U.S. intelligence reports suggesting China was sending dredging ships to the area.
“President Xi has promised President Duterte they will not reclaim and build structures on Scarborough Shoal,” Yasay told reporters.
He was responding to a query about a Reuters report that China is close to completing structures on its manmade islets that appear designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles.
China also allowed Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal after Duterte’s state visit, for the first time since Beijing seized control of the area in 2012 and denied fishermen access to its rich fishing grounds.
It would be a “game changer” if China broke its promise, Yasay said, but added he was confident Beijing would keep its word.
In Beijing, China’s foreign ministry spokesman said the two sides had reached an important consensus during Duterte’s visit to appropriately handle disputes and pursue joint development.
“The two sides have already returned to the correct path of friendly bilateral consultations to appropriately handle the South China Sea issue,” Geng Shuang said. “Cooperation between the two countries in all areas is flourishing.”
But he criticized Yasay’s recent remarks, saying they “run counter to the countries’ high-level consensus”.
“They do not accord with the current healthy and rapid development of China-Philippines relations,” he added.
“They do not accord with the current overall stable situation in the South China Sea or regional countries’ joint desire to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
China started reclaiming seven features it occupied in the Spratly islands immediately after the Philippines filed an arbitration case in the Hague in 2013, questioning its expansive claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the strategic waterway, through which about $5 trillion worth of ship-borne goods pass every year. It is also believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.
China has built three airstrips and had been converting the manmade islands into garrisons, setting up anti-air missiles and air defense radars, against which Manila protested in December.
Manila would file another protest if it could confirm China was completing missile sites on its manmade islands, Yasay added.
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)