SINGAPORE/MANILA — Philippines’ president-elect Rodrigo Duterte said he wanted friendly relations with China and confirmed he was open to direct talks over a territorial row in the South China Sea that has damaged bilateral ties, as he seeks to normalise ties after a strident election campaign that is marked at times, with anti-Chinese rhetoric.
In a likely indication of his intention to set Sino-Philippines ties on an even keel, Mr Duterte met with China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Mr Zhao Jianhua, on Monday (May 16) in his hometown of Davao city.
Mr Zhao congratulated Mr Duterte on winning the presidential elections and that the they had “friendly and sincere exchanges on the development of China-Philippines relations,” the Chinese embassy in Manila said in a statement to TODAY.
“(Mr Zhao) stressed that China and the Philippines are good neighbours, partners and relatives, and the Chinese side is looking forward to working with the Philippine side to properly deal with the differences, deepen traditional friendship and promote mutually beneficial cooperation, so as to bring the bilateral ties forward,” the statement added.
The statement also said Mr Duterte expressed his willingness to improve and develop China-Philippines relations, and strengthen the bilateral cooperation to benefit peoples of both countries.
Mr Zhao was among the first three envoys Mr Duterte met after winning presidential election in a landslide. Mr Duterte reportedly also met with the Japanese ambasador and another envoy whose identity was not made known to the media.
Relations between China and the Philippines worsened sharply throughout current President Benigno Aquino’s six-year term over conflicting claims to parts of the South China Sea, one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.
China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam and other South-east Asian nations. To enforce its claims, China has in recent years built contested reefs into artificial islands, some topped with military-capable airstrips.
The outgoing Aquino administration has asked a court of arbitration in The Hague to recognise its right to exploit waters in the South China Sea, a case it hoped could bolster claims by other countries against China in the resource-rich waters. The move has strained relations between Manila and Beijing.
Mr Duterte, who will be sworn into office on June 30, said late Sunday he planned to continue raising the issue in multilateral environments.
But he also repeated a campaign pledge to hold direct talks with China, if other negotiations failed.
“If the ship of negotiation is in still waters and there’s no wind to push the sail, I might just decide to talk bilaterally with China,” Mr Duterte said in his first press conference after winning the presidential poll.
The firebrand politician has, during his campaign, proposed a jet-ski mission to defend remote islands against China.
“I will ride a jet ski while bringing the Philippine flag,” he had said early this month, referring to how he would ride alone to an Chinese-built airport on reclaimed land in the disputed South China Sea to plant a Philippines flag and say: “This is ours. Do what you want with me.”
On Monday, Mr Duterte said he will reimpose the death penalty, offer Cabinet posts to communist rebels, and move to amend the constitution to give more power to the provinces, in some of his first policy pronouncements since winning last week’s election.
He also said he will launch a major military offensive to destroy Abu Sayyaf extremists on southern Jolo Island, even if their human rights are trampled in the process.
The announcements, a sharp departure from current government policy, reflect his brash campaign pledge to end crime and corruption in the impoverished nation in three to six months. Police officials have said the plan is undoable, and that crime remains prevalent in Davao city, where Mr Duterte has served as mayor for more than 22 years. WITH AGENCIES