China, Philippines hold first talks on South China Sea

GUIYANG (The Straits Times/ANN) - 'Sensitive and contentious issues' discussed but it is unclear what issues were raised.

Chinese and Philippine officials discussed "sensitive and contentious issues" in the first round of direct bilateral talks on their disputes in the South China Sea yesterday.

"We touched on issues about the Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal and the arbitration.

"But we didn't dwell (on them), we didn't impose on the Chinese," Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Santa Romana told reporters at the close of the three-hour meeting.

The meeting, which Romana co-chaired with Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin in Guiyang, came after the two countries' leaders agreed last October to set up a bilateral mechanism to settle disputes over their overlapping maritime claims.

Calling it a "crucial meeting", Romana said at its opening that "if not handled properly, (the South China Sea issue) could affect the positive trajectory of our relations".

President Rodrigo Duterte, in a speech in Manila yesterday evening, recalled a conversation this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping who, he said, had warned him that China would go to war if the Philippines "forces the issue" of ownership over parts of the South China Sea.

Romana said both sides had an "excellent first meeting" that was candid, frank and friendly.

"There was no issue that was left untouched... we covered areas that we don't usually discuss... we dealt with the contentious issues," he added.

However, it is unclear what issues were raised as the joint press statement released by both countries did not give examples.

It stated that both sides "reiterated their commitment to cooperate and find ways forward to strengthen mutual trust and confidence".

Both sides also discussed the promotion of practical maritime cooperation and the possible establishment of relevant technical working groups.

Officials from both countries' foreign ministries and relevant maritime affairs agencies will meet alternately in China and the Philippines every six months, the statement added.

The next meeting will be held in the Philippines in the second half of this year.

The once-strained relations between the Philippines and China have been on the mend since Duterte took office on June 30 last year.

He chose to downplay an arbitral tribunal ruling last July 12 that rejected China's claims to almost all of the South China Sea in exchange for investments, loans and trade deals from Beijing.

Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino had brought a case against Beijing to an international arbitral tribunal in The Hague in 2013 after China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and kept out Filipino fishermen.

But China has allowed Philippine fishing boats into the area since last October.

Also at the opening of the meeting, Romana noted that on Thursday, Asean and China had agreed on a draft framework for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

He said this is a welcome development as both bilateral and multilateral efforts to resolve issues can be "mutually reinforcing for peace, stability and security".

However, it remains unclear whether the eventual COC will be legally binding.

Yesterday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano downplayed the importance of having a legally binding document.

Asean member states and China, he told reporters in Manila, should start with a "gentleman's agreement" on the code.

"If it is legally binding, which court can the parties go to? And the countries that do not comply, will they respect that court?" he said.

"Let's start with it being (a) binding, gentlemen's agreement. We have a community of nations that signed it," he added.