Philippines, China hold talks on maritime dispute, Manila says talks “friendly and frank”

The Philippines and China held “friendly and frank” talks on the South China Sea, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said Saturday (May 22). It was the first meeting between the two countries since bilateral tensions arose over hundreds of Chinese ships stranded in disputed waters.

In March, more than two hundred Chinese ships stayed at Whitson Reef (known in China as Bull Yoke Reef) in the South China Sea. This is only 200 nautical miles from the Philippines and falls within its exclusive economic zone. The Philippines has continued to protest to China, asking these Chinese militia vessels to leave Philippine waters. However, the Chinese side said that the Chinese fishing boats were taking shelter from bad weather in Chinese waters, which is reasonable and legal, and refused to evacuate, so the two sides were at an impasse.

Philippine Foreign Minister Lotsin had tweeted a foul-mouthed message to China to get back.

In a statement, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said the talks were held under a bilateral consultation mechanism established by the two sides in 2016, and that “both sides had a friendly and frank exchange of views on the situation in the South China Sea and specific issues of concern.”

The statement added: “Both sides recognized the importance of dialogue in reducing tensions and understanding each other’s positions and intentions on this regional issue.” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte asked Philippine officials not to comment publicly on the territorial dispute because he did not want to overstimulate Beijing over economic interests.

Philippine mainstream media outlet The Philippine Star reported Saturday that the video talks were hosted by Philippine Deputy Foreign Minister Elizabeth and Chinese Communist Party Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Jianghao.

The talks also discussed the June 2019 ramming and sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese fishing vessel, the Philippine Star said. The Philippine Department of Justice is seeking compensation for the victims of this incident. That collision happened on June 9, 2019, when a Chinese trawler “hit and run” after sinking a Philippine fishing boat near Reed Beach (Lile Beach), and the Filipino fishermen who fell overboard were rescued after struggling for hours in the water. The incident caused strong anger in the Philippines.

The Chinese side said the collision was caused by a failure to avoid the boat and that the fishermen were not rescued because they were afraid of a siege by the Philippine fishing boats, and that there was no “hit-and-run” situation.

A statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the talks said that under the “joint guidance of Xi and Duterte, China-Philippine relations have maintained healthy and stable development.” The statement said the two countries should follow the consensus reached by the two leaders and “make positive contributions to maintaining friendly relations between the two countries and peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the talks were attended by representatives of the two countries’ foreign affairs, defense, natural resources, ecology and environment, transportation, agriculture, energy, maritime police and other departments.

The South China Sea is rich in marine resources. Many neighboring countries have been disputing sovereignty over the sea for years, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan. Most of them claim partial sovereignty over the South China Sea, while only China insists that it has sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea.