China’s President Xi Jinping, in separate meetings with the leaders of the Philippines and Vietnam, said disputes over the South China Sea should be resolved bilaterally, state media reported Sunday.
The comments underscore Beijing’s opposition to involving other countries or international organizations in the maritime territorial dispute, where claimants to the waters also include Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Experts say China prefers a “divide and conquer” tactic over allowing its opponents to group together.
Beijing has repeatedly blamed the United States for stirring up trouble in the South China Sea and opposes an arbitration tribunal’s July ruling in favor of the Philippines, rejecting China’s claims to economic rights across large swathes of the waters.
During a meeting in Peru, Xi told Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte “to actively mull maritime cooperation and promote positive interaction on the sea,” turning the South China Sea into “an opportunity for bilateral friendly cooperation,” said the official Xinhua news agency.
That sentiment was echoed by Duterte, Xinhua reported. The Philippines president has overseen a rapid improvement of previously frosty relations between the two countries since taking office in June.
The Philippines “is willing to properly address maritime issues with China through dialogue and consultation,” said Xinhua.
Xi made similar overtures to Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang while attending a summit of Asia-Pacific countries in Lima.
The Chinese president said the two countries should “solve disputes through bilateral consultations and dialogues, adhere to a cooperative path of ‘shelving differences and engaging in joint development,’ and properly address problems in order to maintain regional peace and tranquillity,” Xinhua said.
The Chinese news agency did not say whether Quang also addressed the South China Sea.
On Thursday, a U.S. think tank reported that Vietnam is extending a runway on an island it claims in the South China Sea, in apparent response to China’s building of military facilities on artificial islands in the region.