No 'hard' issues yet as PH, China begin talks on sea row

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 19) — As he puts on a new hat as the country's top diplomat, former senator and now Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano's thoughts on Friday were also in Guiyang City of China where Manila and Beijing began their historic talk on maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Cayetano spent his first day on the job inspecting the long lines of passport applicants at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) office in Pasay City, but he was also asked about what the Philippine delegation in southwestern China would tackle with their Chinese counterparts.

Related: China, ASEAN agree on South China Sea code framework

As is usual with diplomatic talks, the most contentious issues are saved for last, Cayetano explained. And for the Philippines and China, this would be the arbitral ruling which nullified the Asian giant's sweeping claim in the South China.

"Initially, it's really building of mutual trust.... But eventually the main issue about territory and entitlements... It will come to those hard questions," Cayetano said in a mixture of Filipino and English.

Related: Duterte: Both PH and China cannot afford to go to war

The lawmaker-turned-diplomat said the public shout not expect him or members of the Filipino delegation in China — lead by Ambassador Chito Sta. Romana — to talk much about the details of the "bilateral consultation mechanism," as the talks in China are officially called. Cayetano said strategies should be kept secret, as what diplomacy was all about.

Related: PH envoy to China: Not raising arbitral ruling is gov't strategy

Malacañang had given a similar statement yesterday, confirming that the arbitral award would not be discussed in the preliminary stage.

Palace spokesperson Ernie Abella, however, said one point that would be raised during the talks was the reported rocket launchers spotted on Kagitingan Reef.

Abella said there would be an opportune time to bring up the international tribunal ruling, echoing what President Rodrigo Duterte had repeatedly stressed. Duterte had said that such a time could be when minerals were already being siphoned off Philippine waters.

Meeting every 6 months

Later in the evening, the DFA came out with a joint press release of the two sides on what transpired during the maiden meeting.

The statement said both the Philippines and China exchanged views on issues related to the South China Sea "in a frank, in-depth, and friendly manner."

It said both sides reiterated their commitment "to cooperate and to find ways forward to strengthen mutual trust and confidence."

It was also agreed that the talks would be held alternately in the Philippines and China every six months "to further discuss mutually acceptable approaches to deal" with issues concerning the South China Sea.

The second meeting will be held in the Philippines in the second half of 2017, with the exact date and location yet to be finalized.

CNN Philippines' JC Gotinga contributed to this report.