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International Relations

China and Philippines discuss joint projects in South China Sea

Bilateral meeting statement skirts Beijing's island-building in disputed waterway

An airstrip and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea, as seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane in April 2017.   © AP

MANILA -- A second bilateral meeting between China and the Philippines on their territorial dispute in the South China Sea appears to have centered on cooperation rather than on competition, according to a joint press statement Tuesday night.

Both sides discussed how they could "strengthen cooperation in areas such as marine environmental protection, fisheries, marine scientific research, and oil and gas, without prejudice to their respective positions on sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction," they said.

The statement added that there had been "intensive discussions on mutually beneficial joint initiatives and consensus on the convening of technical working groups" in the above-mentioned areas.

The statement was issued after Chinese and Filipino diplomats met in Manila for their second summit on what they have called the "bilateral consultation mechanism in the South China Sea." Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Policy Enrique Manalo and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou led their respective delegations.

The joint statement skirted the issue of Beijing's ongoing construction and militarization of the islands it has created in the disputed area.

China's Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua, left, walks with other Chinese foreign ministry officials to a meeting with his Philippine counterpart at Taguig city, east of Manila on Feb. 13.   © AP

The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper last week published new images showing China's progress in the construction of air and naval bases in the Spratly area, which the Philippines regards as part of its territory. The news report triggered an uproar on social media, with activists last Saturday mounting a protest near China's consulate in Manila.

The Philippines and China, as well as regional neighbors including Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which $3 trillion to $5 trillion-worth of trade passes annually.

China has reclaimed seven artificial islands in the South China Sea to bolster its expansive claim to nearly the entire waterway. In July 2016, the Philippines won an arbitration case at a court in The Hague that voided China's claim, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's two-week old administration at that time departed from his predecessor's foreign policy and set aside the legal victory in order to repair diplomatic and economic ties with China.

Filipino activists display placards outside the Chinese consulate in Manila on Feb. 10 to protest against Beijing's continued land reclamation activities in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

Maintaining the spirit of their first consultation in Guiyang, China in May 2017, representatives of China and the Philippines on Tuesday agreed to promote peace and stability in the region, and reaffirmed the importance of keeping the policy of freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea.

"Both sides agreed to continue discussions on confidence-building measures to increase mutual trust and confidence and to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the South China Sea that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability," the statement said.

Both parties will meet again in China in the second half of the year.

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