Chinese president Xi Jinping and his Philippine counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jr agreed to strengthen economic ties and handle maritime issues in the South China Sea through consultations, as Beijing seeks to salvage a relationship undermined by their territorial dispute.
After meeting in Beijing, the two leaders agreed to “continue to properly handle maritime issues through friendly consultations,” according to the Chinese foreign ministry. According to Marcos’ office, Xi vowed to extend assistance to the Philippines in areas including agriculture, energy and infrastructure. Marcos told him that the Philippines and China should strengthen their partnership to make the two countries stable and strong and keep the region a driving force behind the global economy.
Coming two weeks after reports China had started building up previously unoccupied land features in the South China Sea, the meeting — and Marcos’ first state visit outside south-east Asia — is seen as a test for whether Manila can bolster economic ties with Beijing while also strengthening its traditional security alliance with the US.
“The value of the visit for Xi Jinping will be to size up Marcos Jr — what kind of leader he is, and whether he can be accommodating like [his predecessor Rodrigo] Duterte was,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
While Duterte took an accommodating stance towards China and suspended developing the alliance with the US, Marcos has pledged to prioritise the protection of Philippine sovereignty. He has moved to strengthen the military relationship with the US with larger joint exercises and talks about new joint bases in the country.
But the Philippine president is also eyeing Chinese investment, especially to underpin his priority policy to strengthen the Philippines’ agricultural sector. China is the Philippines’ largest trading partner, with US$29.1bn worth of bilateral trade in the first nine months of 2022.
Xi and Marcos oversaw the signing of a series of agreements, including for a hotline between their foreign ministries to avoid miscalculations in the South China Sea.
But analysts dismissed the hotline deal as largely meaningless. “Communications channels between the two sides have never been hindered, and hotlines never prevented incidents,” Batongbacal said, pointing to a 2017 hotline agreement between the two countries’ coastguards and to similar arrangements between China and other South China Sea claimant states.
Manila said in December that it would investigate a Bloomberg report that according to western officials China had conducted reclamation on four so far unoccupied land features in the northern Spratly Islands.
Beijing has denied the accusation, but according to Philippine officials, Chinese maritime militia ships are preventing Philippine vessels from approaching the sandbars and reefs, making an investigation on the ground impossible.