BEIJING, CHINA — Seeking to put a positive spin on a relationship that never quite produced the hoped-for benefits, Chinese leader Xi Jinping told outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday that the two nations have “properly” handled the sensitive issue of the disputed South China Sea.
Xi made his remarks in a phone conversation with Duterte, who nurtured closer ties with Beijing after taking office in 2016.
Despite cozier relations, however, sporadic territorial spats have persisted and Beijing has had limited success separating the Philippines from its treaty ally, the United States.
Xi made no mention of disputes, saying the sides “have adhered to the important consensus reached, adhered to good-neighborly and friendly cooperation, insisted on properly handling differences, and insisted on working together for common development.”
“The proper handling of the South China Sea issue by both sides has provided an important foundation for China-Philippines friendly cooperation, benefited the two peoples, and effectively safeguarded regional peace and stability," Xi was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
“China’s policy toward the Philippines maintains continuity and stability, and (China) is willing to work with the Philippines to promote the continuous and sound development of China-Philippines relations and continuously advance to a new level," Xi said.
Duterte is limited to one term and the Philippines holds presidential elections on May 9.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, along with its rich fishing stocks and undersea mineral resources. That has locked it into an increasingly tense territorial standoff in the busy waterway with rival claimants the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal prompted the Philippines to bring the disputes to international arbitration before Duterte took office. In 2016, a U.N.-backed tribunal invalidated most of China’s claims and said it has violated the right of Filipinos to fish at the shoal.
China dismissed the ruling as a sham and continues to defy it, but allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the shoal under Duterte.
In March, U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. John C. Aquilino told The Associated Press on board a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft that China has fully militarized three of the seven islands it built in the disputed Spratlys archipelago in the South China Sea, despite a promise by Xi not to do so.
Chinese weapon systems on the human-built islands include anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and military aircraft.
China responded by saying that its deployment of “necessary national defense facilities on its own territory is a right entitled to every sovereign country and is in line with international law, which is beyond reproach.”