May 17, 2017 10:10 pm JST

China, Philippines to hold first South China Sea talks Friday

Nations will seek ways to manage their territorial dispute, 'prevent escalation'

CLIFF VENZON, Nikkei staff writer

MANILA -- The Philippines and China will on Friday hold their maiden talks under a new "bilateral consultation mechanism" centering on their territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santa Romana will lead Manila's delegation, while China's side will be headed by Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, Santa Romana said in a televised briefing from Beijing.

The meeting will take place in the southern Chinese province of Guizhou, which is also hosting talks on Thursday between China and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on establishing a framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

The maritime dispute has strained diplomatic ties between the two governments. This will be the first meeting of its kind between them. It follows Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's third bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, held on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on May 15 in Beijing.

"We will discuss areas where we have differences and try to understand each other's position and try to explore ways on how to manage [them]," Santa Romana said, declining to be more specific.

The talks will be aimed at "preventing escalation" of tensions and "possible confrontation," while joint exploration for resources in the area could be discussed in future meetings, he added.

The initiative is part of Duterte's efforts to rebuild ties with China, which took a turn for the worse in 2013 after the Philippines, under then-President Benigno Aquino, brought the territorial dispute to an international court of arbitration. Manila won the case in July last year, but Beijing rejected the ruling.

The meeting comes amid a recent report that China has installed rocket launchers on one of the seven artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea to bolster its territorial claims.

During the talks, Beijing is expected to stand firm on its claim of sovereignty over nearly the entire body of water despite an international court ruling countering that assertion. The Philippines, meanwhile, says it will not invoke its legal victory for the time being and will focus on improving mutual trust and confidence.  

"This will be the first step in what would be a long journey," Santa Romana said.

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