Wang Yi: China ready to be good neighbor, brother

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 26) — Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hailed the "renewed friendship" between the Philippines and China, saying the warmer bilateral ties will help maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

"China will return sincerity with goodwill and China stands ready to be the good neighbor and good brother of the Philippine people," said Wang, referring to the Philippine government's pursuit of diplomacy with Beijing in pushing its maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Wang spoke Tuesday in Manila following the signing of a cooperation agreement with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). The memorandum of understanding paves the way for increased interaction and cooperation between the DFA and China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Both diplomats lauded the resurgence of bilateral ties, the growing list of soft loans and aid packages from Beijing, and the opening in May of a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea dispute.

"Embraced the sunlight again"

Wang praised the government for its efforts to befriend China by taking the focus off of the maritime row and work on other aspects of bilateral ties.

"China-Philippines relationship have been back on track and embraced the sunlight again. This is the right choice that is consistent with the trend of the times and the expectation of the people," said Wang, standing side by side with Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano in a media conference.

The administration of President Rodrigo Duterte has chosen a soft approach in pursuing the international arbitral award of the country's maritime entitlements in the disputed waters, which the Philippines refers to as the West Philippine Sea, to pave the way for negotiations with the Chinese government.

In a landmark ruling, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague declared on July 12, 2016 that the Philippines had rights over reefs and waters that lie within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. China refuses to recognize the decision, and has constantly asserted its entire claim over the South China Sea.

Fortifications, fishing ban

Tensions have mellowed between the two countries, and $24 billion in economic and business deals have been signed to herald resurging relations.

However, this has not stopped China from going on with its construction and fortification on some reclaimed islands in the Spratlys, an island chain which falls within the area claimed by the Philippines, as well as Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Satellite images in a report by the US-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) dated June 29 show "new missile shelters, radar/communications facilities, and other infrastructure are going in on Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs."

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Tuesday confirmed receiving this information and said he recommended the filing of a new diplomatic protest with China over the construction ongoing on the three reclaimed reefs.

Cayetano on Wednesday said that "diplomatic actions" are being pursued.

"I can tell you that diplomatic actions are being undertaken and our interests are being protected," he said in a news briefing.

In May, Filipino fishermen who frequent the area of Panatag Shoal known as Scarborough Shoal told CNN Philippines that China Coast Guard personnel forcibly take some of their prized catch. They said they were also still barred by the Chinese from fishing within the shoal itself, in keeping with a "fishing ban" agreed upon by both sides to allow marine life in the shoal to regenerate.

Infrastructure, joint exploration

Both countries will focus on areas of common interest, the two diplomats said, such as trade, finance, counterterrorism, science and technology, arts and culture, and battling the illegal drug trade.

Wang listed a number of upcoming infrastructure projects in the Philippines to be financed by China, including two bridges on Pasig River, the South Line of the North-South Commuter Railway, the Kaliwa Dam and the Chico River irrigation pump projects.

Wang agreed with Cayetano, who said there may be a way for the two governments to jointly explore the South China Sea for oil, without violating the Philippine Constitution or any local law.

He said unilateral action may "complicate" the dispute and lead to "tensions."

"In waters where there is overlapping of maritime rights and interests, if one party goes for unilateral development, then the other party will take the same actions - and that might complicate the situation at sea," said Wang.

Wang added, any unilateral exploration "might lead to tensions, and as the end result, nobody might be able to develop the resources."

The issue of joint exploration surfaced when President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday after his State of the Nation Address said that he was open to exploring with China possible oil and gas in the South China Sea.

Critics have warned that any joint exploration with China is unconstitutional and undermines the 2016 arbitral award.

Former Solicitor General: Joint exploration with China in disputed waters undermines Philippines' rights

Say 'no' together

Without naming any country in particular, Wang urged the Philippines and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 50-year-old regional grouping which the country chairs this year, to resist influence from outside Southeast Asia.

"If there are still some non-regional forces or forces in the region - they don't want to see stability in the South China Sea and they still want to stir up trouble in the South China Sea - we need to stand together and say 'no' to them together," Wang said.

China has been at odds with the US over the latter's freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, including the area claimed by the Philippines.

The Philippines has a longstanding defense treaty with the United States, which has continually challenged what it calls China's expansionist claims in the contentious waters but has not taken sides on the sovereignty dispute between Manila and Beijing.

Independent foreign policy

Wang said China welcomes the Philippines' quest for an independent foreign policy - one that charts its own course without undue influence from any other country.

Asked about where the Philippines stands in China's political and economic plans, Wang said it has an assured place in the "Modern Silk Road," an economic scheme that spans Europe, Asia and the Pacific, with China as the central power.

"The Philippines will be an important part," Wang said. President Duterte traveled to Beijing in early May to participate in the Belt and Road Forum.