China and Philippines sign oil, gas exploration deal as Xi Jinping meets Duterte

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte shake hands after a joint press statement at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on Tuesday.

Beijing and Manila have agreed to a joint oil and gas exploration deal – one of 29 deals that were signed on Tuesday as Chinese President Xi Jinping began a two-day state visit to the Philippines, South China Morning Post reported.

The two nations also signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on Beijing’s vast trade and infrastructure strategy, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, and agreed to boost ties.

After meeting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for talks, Xi described the visit as a “milestone” in the countries’ relations. Xi is the first Chinese leader to visit Manila in 13 years.

The trip is widely seen as part of Beijing’s efforts to move closer to the Philippines – despite their long-running dispute over the South China Sea – by extending investment and aid to the United States ally.

“China and the Philippines have a lot of common interest in the South China Sea,” Xi said after the talks. “We will continue to manage contentious issues and promote maritime cooperation through friendly consultation.”

He also said China would work with other Southeast Asian countries to finalise a code of conduct for the disputed waters within three years.

Reuters reported that Xi’s visit comes two years after the maverick Duterte declared he was reorienting his foreign policy away from longtime ally the United States and toward China, despite decades of mistrust and bitter maritime disputes with Beijing.

Duterte is facing criticism from opponents for making too many political concessions to China in return for billions of dollars of pledged Chinese loans and investments that have yet to materialize, or be committed to formally.

The two leaders on Tuesday oversaw 29 agreements of sorts, many of them broad or vague, from cooperating in education, culture and industrial park development to jointly promoting infrastructure, agriculture cooperatives and establishing sanitation protocols for shipping coconuts.

Duterte said there was “a deepening trust and confidence” between them and he and Xi had discussed increasing trade and investment, and China’s involvement in his signature $180 billion “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.

“With mutual respect, sincerity and adherence to sovereign equality, I will continue to work closely with President Xi,” he said.

SUBMISSIVE STRATEGY

Duterte’s management of those issues has frustrated nationalists, who say he has been submissive in refusing to criticize China’s military buildup, or asking for its compliance with a 2016 arbitration award that invalidated its claim to almost the entire waterway.

Though public opinion is largely supportive of Duterte’s presidency, surveys consistently show reservations about his China policy and his personal dislike of the United States.

A Social Weather Stations poll of 1,200 Filipinos released on the eve of Xi’s visit showed 84 percent felt it was wrong not to oppose China’s militarization of its manmade islands in the South China Sea.

It also showed trust in the United States remained “very good”, but China was considered “poor”.

Asked about that survey, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Duterte’s strategy was to avoid a conflict while reaping the rewards of improved business.

“They are not aware of the real geopolitics in the region. The president is a very cautious diplomat,” Panelo told news channel ANC.

“Rather than provoke, he’d rather talk with them and get some trade relations that will benefit this country.”

In comments prior to the two leaders’ meeting, Panelo accepted the slow pace of China delivering on its investment pledges, but said he expected Duterte to be brave enough “to exert pressure” on Xi.

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