PH, China defense chiefs agree to 'amicably' settle sea disputes amid US plea to ASEAN

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 11) — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana met with his Chinese counterpart at the headquarters of the Philippine Armed Forces on Friday with an agreement to peacefully settle disputes on the South China Sea.

The Philippines was the last stop this week of Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe after visiting Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei – three Southeast Asian countries that claim parts of the South China Sea.

Wei also paid a courtesy call to President Rodrigo Duterte in Malacañang.

“[W]e must always be guided by our commitments in international law. Any and all disputes must be resolved peacefully in full accord with the UNCLOS and all relevant international instruments," Duterte said, as quoted by the Palace in a statement.

He added that all “all relevant players with a stake" in the South China Sea should work to stabilize the region.

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to stand up against Beijing’s “aggressive actions” and quit doing business with Chinese companies that Washington had blacklisted for involvement in illegal activities in the disputed waters.

READ: PH to honor contracts with Chinese firms despite US blacklist – Palace

The Philippines’ Department of National Defense initially issued a press release quoting some strong words from Lorenzana that the country adheres to the arbitral ruling and will continue “to conduct routine, legitimate maritime patrols in the WPS (West Philippine Sea) and challenge any activities that infringe on Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”

West Philippine Sea refers to areas that Manila claims in the South China Sea, a vast global waterway that Beijing insists to own almost entirely.

An international tribunal in The Hague recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to areas under its exclusive economic zone that China disputes, but both governments “agreed to disagree” on the landmark ruling to pursue cooperation.

The Philippines’ Defense Department recalled its news release in an hour. The latest statement makes no mention of the country’s arbitration win and stressed that Lorenzana and Wei discussed “how to avoid misunderstanding, and to resolve differences amicably.”

“Both agreed that peace and stability in the SCS should be maintained," the statement read. "Both also talked about the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the SCS.”

The code will outline the only allowable actions countries can take in the South China Sea. Critics have noted the slow progress in the talks due to resistance from China, but the Chinese government recently called for the resumption of negotiations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philippines is country coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations until 2021.

The two defense leaders also signed the implementing guidelines for a grant worth 130 milllion renminbi or over ₱922 million for the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the form of equipment for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Lorenzana “expressed his optimism that his meeting with General Wei will foster collaboration between both countries’ defense establishments, and advance mutual trust and interests for future exchanges on matters of security and mutual concern,” the department said.

Aside from defense cooperation, Lorenzana and Wei also exchanged best practices in pandemic response in their face-to-face meeting at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.

CNN Philippines' David Santos contributed to this report.