Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Tuesday that the situation in disputed South China Sea is “trending toward stability,” partly due to his country’s improved relations with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.
Speaking after talks with Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano in Manila, Wang told reporters that “cooperation is rising and positive elements are increasing” in the South China Sea, “thanks to the concerted efforts from China, the Philippines and other ASEAN countries.”
“The improvement of China-Philippines relationship has played a key role in this process,” added Wang, whose visit reciprocates one made by Cayetano to Beijing in late June.
Aside from the Philippines, three other members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations, namely Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea. ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Singapore.
After assuming power last year, President Rodrigo Duterte opted to temporarily set aside Manila’s territorial disputes with Beijing in order to revive their economic relations.
Bilateral ties relations had chilled during the previous administration of President Benigno Aquino, which more aggressively defended the country’s claims in the South China Sea by submitting its disputes with China to international arbitration.
In July last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, invalidating China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea and reprimanding it for causing environmental damage in the course of its reclamation activities.
Since then, the Duterte administration has not pressed for Chinese compliance with the ruling, instead downplaying it in favor of improved bilateral ties and economic benefits.
China has in recent years been reclaiming and fortifying reefs and shoals in the South China Sea despite having agreed a declaration signed in 2002 with ASEAN “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
Nevertheless, Wang claimed that the implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea “is making important progress,” while the framework of a proposed code of conduct, envisaged in that declaration, “is taking shape.”
“This fact shows to the world that China and ASEAN countries have full capabilities and wisdom to handle the differences between us and maintain stability in the South China Sea,” he said.
“If there are still some non-regional forces in the region, (if) they don’t want to see stability in the South China Sea, and they still want to stir up trouble in the South China Sea, we need to stand together and say, ‘No,’ to them together,” he added.
The United States has openly criticized China’s behavior in the South China Sea and has sent warships close to Chinese-occupied artificial islands to challenge Beijing’s claims of sovereignty.
On Duterte’s friendly approach toward China despite his country’s longstanding close ties with the United States, Wang called it “the right choice” and said China will return sincerity with good will.
For his part, Cayetano said, “The friendship between the Philippines and China, through the leadership of President Xi Jinping and President Rodrigo Duterte, is a friendship worth fostering.”
“China is ready to be a good neighbor and good brother of the Filipino people,” Wang said as he enumerated his country’s continuing assistance to the Philippines like participation in the Duterte government’s major infrastructure programs, importation of Philippine agricultural products and the encouragement of Chinese tourists to visit the Philippines.
He also cited Chinese cooperation in relation to Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign and assistance in relation to the crisis in Marawi, a city on the southern island of Mindanao where government forces have been battling Islamist militants since May 23.
Wang and Cayetano signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen the cooperation between their two ministries.
Wang assured the Philippines that it can also benefit from China’s One Belt, One Road initiative to link Asia with Europe.
“No matter what perspectives we take, the Philippines is an indispensable important partner of…efforts to build the 21st century Maritime Silk Road,” he said.
The Chinese foreign minister also expressed hope that Manila and Beijing could make a decision on a possible joint development in the South China Sea, which he and Cayetano trace back to 1986 when then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping first proposed the idea to then Philippine President Corazon Aquino.
“We are praying that this generation, under President Xi Jinping and President Duterte, will have the wisdom to find a way that these natural resources will benefit our people,” Cayetano said. A similar project several years ago under the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was dropped after its constitutionality was questioned.
Wang is expected to return to Manila in early August for meetings of ASEAN foreign ministers with the group’s regional partners like China, Japan, and South Korea, among others. The Philippines is this year’s rotating chairman of ASEAN.
The Chinese official capped his visit on Tuesday with a courtesy call on Duterte at the presidential palace.
Cayetano, meanwhile, said Premier Li Keqiang is expected to attend the ASEAN meeting with world leaders in Manila in November, while an invitation for Xi to visit Manila stands.