THE TOP Philippine and Chinese diplomats discussed their countries’ sea dispute at the weekend, with China saying they should not let differences affect bilateral relations.

“The two sides should remove disturbances calmly and properly manage differences and not let them affect the overall situation of China-Philippines relations,” Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a Facebook post on Monday.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. went to Tunxi, China on Sunday to speak with his Chinese counterpart on the sea dispute after tensions over China’s intrusion into Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

China claims more than 80% of the waterway based on a 1940s map that overlaps with the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Each year, trillions of dollars of trade flow through the sea, which is also rich in fish and gas.

It has refused to honor a 2016 ruling by a United Nations-backed tribunal that voided its claim.

Both Mr. Locsin and Mr. Wang agreed that maritime issues should be placed in an “appropriate position in bilateral relations,” according to the Chinese Foreign minister.

The Philippine Coast Guard last month said a Chinese vessel’s close distance maneuver had risked a collision near the Scarborough shoal. China said the Philippines should respect its sovereignty over the shoal.

The Philippines later summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian over its navy’s intrusion in the Sulu Sea.

The vessel had reached the Cuyo Group of Islands in Palawan province and Apo Island in Mindoro, it said in a statement. Philippine Navy vessel BRP Antonio Luna challenged the ship, which responded by saying it was exercising innocent passage.

China violated international law when People’s Liberation Army Navy electronic reconnaissance ship ignored orders from the Philippine Navy for them to leave immediately, the Philippine Foreign Affairs department said.

Its movements did not follow a track that could be considered continuous and expeditious, lingering in the Sulu Sea for three days it added.

In 2019, a Chinese aircraft carrier, the CV-16 Liaoning, had also passed through the Philippines’ Sibutu Passage — a narrow sea lane between the main island of Tawi-Tawi and Sibutu Island — without notice.

“We hope that the Philippine ships will earnestly respect China’s sovereignty and rights and interests, abide by China’s domestic law and international law and avoid interfering with the patrol and law enforcement of the China Coast Guard in the above-mentioned waters,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wengbin had said.

The Philippine Coast Guard said it was the fourth time in 10 months since May last year that Chinese Coast Guard ships had sailed too close to Philippine vessels, a “clear violation of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.”

The shoal, which the Philippines calls Panatag, is about 120 nautical miles (nm) west of Luzon island and within the Southeast Asian nation’s 200 nm exclusive economic zone.

Mr. Wang said China sees the Philippines as a priority in its neighborhood diplomacy, which explains why its policies toward the country has always remained friendly. 

“China is ready to speed up the construction of key infrastructure projects with the Philippines, continue to provide COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) vaccine assistance and enhance public health cooperation according to the need of the Philippines,” he said.

During the meeting, Mr. Locsin said Philippine-China relations have become increasingly mature, while bilateral practical cooperation has achieved historic results, benefiting both sides, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

China is “committed to independence and peaceful development,” by promoting the development of other countries in the region, he was also quoted as saying.

China was the Philippines’ biggest source of imports in the first 11 months of last year as it shipped $24.6 billion worth of goods to the country, government data showed.

It was also the second-biggest export destination, receiving $10.6 billion in goods from the Philippines. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan

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