Philippines, China: No sea row talks at APEC
Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) - November 10, 2015 - 9:00am

Noy vows warm welcome for Chinese leader

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines and China have agreed to avoid discussions on rising tensions in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea during next week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila.

“We recognize that APEC is not the proper forum to discuss this issue,” Charles Jose, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman, told reporters yesterday.

“In the context of APEC, we both agreed APEC is an economic forum and it won’t be a proper venue to discuss political security issues,” he said.

Jose’s pronouncement came shortly after Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s meeting yesterday with his Chinese countepart Wang Yi. Wang later met with President Aquino at Malacañang.

“On APEC, Minister Wang said the main purpose of his visit is to confer with Philippine government officials regarding preparations for APEC, to ensure that the attendance of President Xi Jinping in AELM (APEC economic leaders meeting) will be smooth, safe and successful,” Jose said.

“The secretary (Del Rosario) said we are committed to being a good host to all guests and we are endeavouring to ensure President Xi’s visit will be safe, comfortable and productive,” he said.

On Tuesday Beijing aired its wish that the summit not tackle the roiling maritime issue after a regional defense ministers’ meeting recently in Malaysia failed to issue a joint communiqué in a split over the issue.

Wang met for about an hour with Del Rosario. The DFA chief waved but ignored questions shouted at him by journalists as he stepped out of the DFA premises.

Del Rosario said the meeting was “good” but hurried to the presidential palace, where Wang met Aquino. Before their meeting, the two ministers posed for pictures and Wang signed a guest book. Del Rosario also hosted a lunch for Wang after the meeting with Aquino. Wang’s pre-APEC summit working visit was upon the invitation of Del Rosario.

The two foreign ministers last met in Beijing in 2013 on the sidelines of Southeast Asian foreign ministers’ meeting with their Chinese counterpart, but it is Wang’s first visit to Philippine capital as a foreign minister.

Marciano Paynor, head of the APEC summit organizing committee, told reporters Monday the maritime row would be off the summit agenda.

“I will reiterate that when we meet at APEC, it’s all economic issues and we do not take up bilateral, specific bilateral issues in APEC,” Paynor added.

Palace meeting

President Aquino met with Wang later yesterday ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s arrival for the 23rd APEC summit on Nov. 18 to 19.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. quoted the President as saying he welcomed the decision of Xi to attend the APEC summit during his talk with Wang.

“He (Aquino) assured the foreign minister that it is in the culture of the Filipinos as hosts to make our guests feel the warmth of Filipino hospitality,” Coloma said.

Coloma said the President also told Wang that he was to conduct an inspection of APEC venues and assess the status of preparations for the summit.

Discussing the Beijing officials’ visits to Manila, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Monday that China wanted to improve relations with its neighbor.

“For reasons known to all, bilateral relations are facing difficulties, which is not something we want to see,” Hong told reporters in Beijing.

“We value bilateral ties, and we would like to properly resolve relevant issues through consultations and negotiations.”

His comments came after a landmark summit between Xi and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou at the weekend – the first such meeting since the two sides split at the end of a civil war in 1949.

Those talks raised hopes of a further thaw in relations between the two former rivals.

However, Hong emphasized in his comments on Monday that the onus rested on the Philippines to improve ties with Beijing.

Aquino’s only meetings with Chinese leaders included a very brief encounter with Xi on the sidelines of last year’s Beijing APEC summit. He also made a state visit to China in 2011 for talks with Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao.

Over China’s objection, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last month ruled it has jurisdiction over a case filed by Manila seeking to clarify the Philippines’ maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea amid China’s incursions and massive land reclamation. China claims almost the entire West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.

Tension simmering

Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has sought to reinforce its position by building up reefs and tiny islets into artificial islands capable of hosting military facilities.

Its stance puts it in opposition with several other members of the APEC, including the US.

Last month Washington pressed its right to freedom of navigation by sending the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen to within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the artificial islets in the Spratlys chain, angering China.

This year’s APEC summit begins in the Philippines – also a South China Sea claimant – next week but Li Baodong, a vice foreign minister, told a briefing in Beijing: “There is no plan to discuss the South China Sea issue.”

“APEC is mainly a platform to discuss economic and trade cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region,” he added. “There is consensus on this point.”

Last week an Asia-Pacific defense ministers’ meeting in Malaysia ended on a sour note as the US and China butted heads over whether a final joint statement should mention the South China Sea.

Besides China and the Philippines, the other claimants are Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan, with some of their claims overlapping.

On Saturday in Singapore, Xi promised to safeguard freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where tensions have flared over overlapping claims and the US Navy’s moves to challenge Beijing’s island-building.

China criticized last week’s patrol of the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, within the 12-nautical-mile (22-kilometer) territorial limit of Subi Reef, one of the South China Sea features that have been claimed, expanded and reinforced by China over objections of other claimants, particularly the Philippines.

The US Navy said it wanted to demonstrate the principle of freedom of navigation.

China, the Philippines and four other governments have overlapping claims across the vast South China Sea and West Philippine Sea, with Beijing claiming it has sovereignty over virtually all of the waters. Some of the disputed areas are believed to sit atop vast undersea deposits of oil and gas and straddle some of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

China’s APEC version

In Beijing, Chinese senior officials said China will seek to push its own vision of an Asia-Pacific trade pact at the APEC summit next week.

Beijing sought to promote the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) at last year’s APEC summit, which it hosted.

At the meeting’s close, participants endorsed efforts to explore the idea, which was seen as a potential rival to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a Washington-led trade coalition that includes the region’s largest economies, except for China.

Little has been heard of the FTAAP since, while the long-secret text of the TPP deal was released Thursday, receiving cheers from global business interests and jeers from labor, environmental and health groups, which vowed to fight its ratification.

China said it would report the findings of a study on FTAAP at next week’s APEC summit in the Philippines, to be attended by Xi.

“We need to actively work for the establishment of FTAAP,” Chinese vice finance minister Wang Shouwen told a briefing, adding that FTAAP would be “a facilitator for regional integration in APEC.”

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