Philippines officials say they expect to hold high level talks with China in the coming months to maintain good relations, despite heated debate in recent weeks over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario says his office plans to take up an invitation to visit Beijing in the coming months as an opportunity to reaffirm good ties with China. He says, so far, the country has signed 100 agreements with China related to trade and investment, defense, security and education.
“I believe that the relationship is healthy," del Rosario said, "and that if there are challenges in the Spratlys or in the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea, we should abstract that challenge at this time and deal with it separately and not have it adversely affect our relations.”
But at a news briefing with foreign media in Manila Friday, the secretary reiterated the Philippines’ stance of “what’s ours is ours,” and said that joint cooperation and exploration should prevail in disputed areas in the South China Sea. He said that since February, China has made more than seven intrusions into territory that officials in Manila now refer to as the West Philippine Sea.
The sea contains the Spratly group of islands that are believed to hold vast reserves of oil and natural gas deposits. The area is also home to major international sea lanes. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan claim parts or all of the Spratlys and most of the run-ins have been over these islands. Beijing insists that nearly the entire South China Sea region has been under Chinese sovereignty for centuries.
Del Rosario met last week with United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who renewed America’s commitment to upholding a decades-old mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. U.S. officials say they have an interest in keeping the sea’s lanes free.
Clinton said Washington remains neutral in territorial squabbles on the South China Sea, but she also said it would help the Philippines obtain “affordable” military equipment.
The Philippines’ largest warship is a U.S. destroyer used in World War II. Del Rosario says refurbishing old equipment gets expensive and takes a long time to complete. So, he says his department is looking at the option of leasing U.S. military equipment.
“Which I believe could benefit us in terms of being able to obtain newer assets and earlier delivery and of course with the assistance of the U.S. Congress, something that is more cost effective,” del Rosario said.
Still, del Rosario says he does not believe tension in the South China Sea will reach any stage of aggression that would call for the use of weapons.
The United States has long favored multilateral talks regarding the South China Sea. But China has repeatedly told the Washington to stay out of the dispute.