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China, Philippines agree to 'manage differences' in South China Sea

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Hong Kong

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his Filipino counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jr. agreed to strengthen economic ties and resume talks on oil exploration as they seek to revive their economies amid the pandemic crisis and friction in the contested areas of the South China Sea.

Xi met with Marcos Jr. on Wednesday during the Philippine president’s first state visit to Beijing, where the two leaders agreed to “manage differences appropriately,” according to a joint statement released on Thursday.

The statement said the leaders had a “deep and frank” discussion on the situation in the South China Sea and “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace and stability in the region”.

During the talks, Manila and Beijing also agreed to resume talks on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, which stalled last June due to constitutional challenges and sovereignty issues.

Mark Jr. had previously said that his country would seek oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea even without an agreement with China, which claims almost all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea as its own, although other territories, including the Philippines, have competing – and sometimes overlapping – claims to certain areas.

The South China Sea has long been a source of tension between Manila and Beijing, and relations were further strained in December when the Philippine Department of National Defense expressed “great concern” over the presence of Chinese vessels in the contested waterway.

The Philippines has repeatedly accused Chinese vessels of harassing Filipino fishermen in the region, and in a statement released on Wednesday, Marcos Jr. says he raised the issue with Xi during their meeting in Beijing.

In the statement, Marcos Jr. said Xi promised to “find a solution” that would allow Filipino fishermen to operate in the Southeast Asian country’s natural fishing grounds.

“We also discussed what we can do to move forward, to avoid possible mistakes, misunderstandings that could trigger a bigger problem than what we already have,” he added.

To that end, countries announced plans to establish a direct line of communication between their maritime departments.

In the statement from the Philippines, Marcos Jr. said Xi pledged to extend assistance to the Philippines, including agriculture, infrastructure and maritime security, with both sides signing a total of 14 bilateral agreements.

Xi also pledged broad opportunities for cooperation with the Philippines, including supporting Chinese investment in the Philippines and helping its neighbor to develop agricultural technology, basic education, meteorology and space and vaccine research, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

The Philippines has long balanced America’s strategic interest in the Pacific with China’s geopolitical and economic rise.

While the Philippines is a longtime defense ally of the United States, former leader Rodrigo Duterte has sought closer ties with China during his six years in power, putting aside their territorial dispute in exchange for Chinese investment.

Marcos Jr.’s journey The move to Beijing comes after US Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Philippines in November, where she reaffirmed Washington’s “unwavering” commitment to its ally.

During the visit, Harris and Marcos Jr. discussed 21 new US-funded projects, including more defense sites in the Philippines.