BEIJING — Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has cited stable ties with China during a visit to Beijing in which he has sought to downplay territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
After being hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, both nations are seeking to recharge investments in bridges and other projects, along with tourism and agriculture.
Disputes linger however over islands and waters in the strategic South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety.
In a video address released by his office Wednesday, Marcos said the sides discussed “what we can do to move forward, to avoid possible mistakes, misunderstandings that could trigger a bigger problem than what we already have.”
Marcos said he made the case for Filipino fishermen who have been denied access to their traditional areas of operation by China’s navy and coast guard.
“The president promised that we would find a compromise and find a solution that will be beneficial so that our fishermen might be able to fish again in their natural fishing grounds,” Marcos said.
A joint statement issued Thursday said Xi and Marcos had an “in-depth and candid exchange of views on the situation in the South China Sea, emphasized that maritime issues do not comprise the sum-total of relations between the two countries and agreed to appropriately manage differences through peaceful means,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
“Both sides reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace and stability in the region and the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea,” the statement added.
Accompanied by a large business delegation, Marcos presided at meetings Thursday seeking to finalize trade and investment deals. China accounts for 20% of the Philippines’ foreign trade and is also a major source of foreign direct investment.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said that both sides “agreed to handle maritime issues properly through friendly consultation” and resume talks on oil and gas exploration.
Xi named agriculture, infrastructure, energy and culture as four key areas of cooperation. He said that China is willing to assist in agriculture and rural development in the Philippines and in infrastructure and connectivity projects, Xinhua reported.
Marcos received a commitment from Xi to address the Philippines’ trade deficit with China, his office said. The two sides are finalizing rules for imports of fruits from the Philippines, which Marcos said would start to balance the trade.
The Philippine leader said he also looked forward to the return of Chinese tourists once the COVID-19 situation in China settles. Last year, only about 9,500 Chinese visited the Philippines, down from about 1.6 million before the pandemic.
In comments to the head of China’s ceremonial legislature, Li Zhanshu, Marcos said the two countries “be able to face the challenges and the different shocks that now we are already beginning to feel and will be continue to feel in the next few years.”
Beijing has ignored a 2016 ruling by a tribunal in The Hague brought by the Philippines that invalidated Beijing’s claims to the waterway.
China has since developed disputed reefs into artificial islands with airplane runways and other structures so they now resemble forward military bases.
Most recently, a Filipino military commander reported that the Chinese coast guard forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris that Philippine navy personnel had retrieved in the South China Sea last month.
China denied the forcible seizure, saying the Filipino sailors willingly handed over the debris. Marcos did not say whether he had raised the issue in his meetings with Chinese leaders.