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Philippines, China Vow Friendly Relations Despite Territorial Dispute

An aerial view shows the Pagasa (Hope) Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines. (2011 File)

The Philippines and China are trying to repair tensions over territorial disputes with a series of cultural events during the next two years.

Cultural exchanges

At this week’s event in Manila ushering in a series of cultural exchanges with China, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario noted the two countries’ history and geography would only partly determine their relationship.

But in an event aimed at repairing their ties, his words echoed the same themes of respect and rule of law the Philippines has been using to argue its case in the South China Sea territorial dispute.

“It behooves us, therefore, both Filipinos and Chinese, to build the bonds of amity on the strongest of foundations, not only of mutual benefit but also of mutual respect, sovereign equality, dialog, and the rule of law,” Rosario said.

South China Sea disputes

The Philippines has repeatedly referred to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in its dispute with China over a group of islands in the South China Sea. The United Nations says a country has jurisdiction over its exclusive economic zone. That area is 370 kilometers beyond a nation’s coastline and the Philippines says some of these islands are well within its exclusive economic zone.

China claims practically the entire sea based on a centuries-old map.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the sea, which is believed to hold vast reserves of oil and natural gas. It is a fishing hotspot and some of the world’s busiest sea lanes pass through its waters.

In the past year, the Philippines has complained of at least nine run-ins with China in the sea. Last year, it said Chinese patrol boats harassed a ship on an exploration exercise.

China has called the complaints baseless and has turned down offers to bring the dispute before a U.N. tribunal. It has instead repeatedly called for bilateral talks with claimant countries to resolve the issue.

Seeking common ground, shelving differences

At the friendly exchanges kick off, China’s special envoy to the Philippines Niu Dun’s speech was peppered with references to the one-on-one relationship between the two countries. He spoke through an interpreter.

“Our two countries should continue to respect each other, seek common ground while shelving differences, expand consensus and properly handle differences through dialogue, and uphold the overall friendly relations between China and the Philippines," Niu stated. "We need to cherish the hard-won momentum of sound development of our bilateral relations.”

During the past year, the Philippines has shifted its military focus towards international security. In August it received a U.S. Hamilton-class cutter, which is the largest ship in its small naval fleet. The ship, the Gregorio del Pilar, is patrolling waters off the South China Sea at the country’s only natural gas drilling project. It is poised to receive a second ship this year.

The Philippine Energy Department is expected to award oil and gas exploration contracts next month, at least two in the disputed areas. China, through an editorial in its state-run daily, has expressed great displeasure at the move, saying the Philippines will have to take responsibility if any “fresh flare-up of the South China Sea issue” should arise.

Beijing is launching its portion of the cultural exchange program with the Philippines next month.