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South China Sea on Agenda as Philippine President Heads to Beijing

  • Simone Orendain

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III climbs up the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (PF 15) as he leads arrival ceremonies at Manila's pier, Philippines, August 23, 2011

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III climbs up the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (PF 15) as he leads arrival ceremonies at Manila's pier, Philippines, August 23, 2011

China’s ambassador in Manila says his country is willing to look into partnerships with the Philippines in disputed parts of the South China Sea. The remarks come a week before the Philippines’ president makes his first state visit to China.

Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao says the South China Sea will be one issue among many others to be discussed during President Benigno Aquino’s five-day visit to China starting August 30.

“It’s because the issue has been there for decades and we can’t really expect it to be settled just by this trip," said Liu. "But I know the visit will further enhance the understanding of the two the leaders of the two governments.”

Claims in the South China Sea have been a sore spot between the two countries for most of the year. Philippine officials reported at least seven run-ins with Chinese vessels in territory that Manila claims as part of its exclusive economic zone. The U.N.-mandated zone extends some 370 kilometers from a nation’s coastline. China says it made no intrusions because of a centuries-old claim that, it says, gives Beijing sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.

The sea has major shipping lanes and is believed to hold vast deposits of natural gas and oil. Apart from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims there.

The Philippines has been pushing to settle the matter through a U.N. tribunal. China has repeatedly said it prefers to do it through one-on-one talks without any third-party involvement. Throughout the squabble, the Philippines has said joint exploration and cooperation in the disputed areas should be the way forward.

Ambassador Liu also called for joint efforts during a briefing Wednesday for local and foreign reporters in Manila. He said China has wanted such an effort since 1985.

“We are ready to have joint exploration and development with the other claiming parties in the whole disputed areas," he said. "Of course we have to reach consensus and have to have an agreement on where and how we can have such cooperation.”

Liu says China would have to look further into what the Philippines’ idea of such a partnership would be.

Earlier this week, the Philippines largest and newest military ship docked in Manila. The 115-meter BSP Gergorio Del Pilar’s primary duty will be to safeguard Philippine territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In a speech Tuesday welcoming the 46-year-old Hamilton class cutter from the United States, Aquino reiterated the country’s resolve to fortify its military defenses.

He says this modern ship symbolizes his country's newly acquired ability to guard, protect, and if necessary, fight for the interests of his country.

Philippine officials say the president’s trip to China will focus primarily on boosting trade, economic cooperation and tourism between the two countries.

The Philippines' assistant foreign secretary told reporters Wednesday that officials are not expecting a confrontational meeting over the disputed territory. But Christine Ortega did say that Aquino will bring up the issue of the West Philippine Sea, which is what the Philippine government calls the South China Sea.

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