By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed that the South China Sea will be a “sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation” between the Philippines and China.
In meeting the leaders of the two houses of the 17th Congress on Tuesday, Xi assured that China will focus on cooperating and building closer ties with the Philippines, instead of delving on the dispute over the West Philippine Sea.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, who led the Senate contingent in the courtesy call with Xi Wednesday morning, stressed the importance of the good diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Sotto said: “There is certainly much more that binds the Philippines and China together than what may divide the two.”
Sotto was with Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, and Senators Panfilo Lacson and Gregorio Honasan when they paid a courtesy call on Xi at around 11 a.m.
On the other hand, House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo led leaders of the House of Representatives. Their meeting, according to Zubiri, ended at 11:30 a.m.
Zubiri, in an interview with reporters later, said Xi had cited his discussions with President Duterte about the territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The two nation leaders, Zubiri said, have decided to set aside, for the meantime, the “controversial issues” as they concentrate on strengthening their countries’ friendship.
Among Xi’s commitment was the establishment of a “maritime mechanism” which would supposedly be the liaison between the Philippine and Chinese governments, particularly in accessing the West Philippines Sea.
It would serve as an “automatic” system to immediately resolve tensions between Philippine and China vessels in contested waters, Zubiri said.
Xi, Zubiri added, promised that the Filipino fishermen “will not be harassed” when they sail at the West Philippines Sea.
The Senate Majority Leader noted, however, that Xi did not give any details on how the two countries will undertake the exploration and utilization of the resources in waters off the heavily-disputed territory.
Xi also did not mention in their meeting the Philippines and China’s agreement on the joint exploration of oil and gas in the West Philippines Sea.
While the contents of the memorandum of understanding have yet to be made public, Zubiri remained optimistic that the Philippines will not be on the losing end as he believed that President Duterte will not allow that his country will be taken advantage of.
He allayed concerns that the Philippines would lose its sovereign rights over the West Philippines Sea with the deal.
“It’s a win-win solution because right now, I think we are in the golden age of Philippine-China friendship and relationship. I think we should tap that idea, that we should focus on cooperation and friendship and trade between China and Philippines, rather than picking fights, rather than making derogatory statement or statements that will slow down the diplomatic relations between the two countries,” Zubiri said.
No Congress member raised The Hague ruling in their meeting with Xi. Zubiri said this was to maintain diplomacy between the two countries on the matter.
“Things like that are being discussed on a subcommittee level and one-on-one discussion [between] the President and the leader of the People’s Republic of China. It’s not for us to take up. We don’t want to ruffle diplomatic feathers at this time, on the very historic visit of the Chinese president in the country,” he explained.
Aside from the issue on the South China Sea, the meeting with Xi also concentrated on trade and commerce between the Philippines and China.
Zubiri said lawmakers also welcomed Xi’s expression of commitment to strengthening the Philippines’ tourism sector, particularly by encouraging Chinese foreigners to visit the country.
Jobs for teachers, nurses
Xi also said the Chinese government was also “looking forward” to accommodate more Filipino English teachers in China.
Zubiri said China will “make it easier” for Filipinos who will be applying for English teacher positions and in acquiring working visas.
Besides teachers, the Chinese president said they were mulling on increasing job opportunities for Filipino nurses.
War on drugs, terrorism
During the courtesy meeting, the Duterte government’s war on drugs was briefly discussed with Xi expressing his “full support” for President Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs, as well as terrorism.
Zubiri said Xi and President Duterte had already discussed “on a personal level” the big-time smuggling of illegal drugs from China during their bilateral meeting Tuesday night.
Xi supposedly said that he and Duterte spoke about how to improve the anti-drug campaign, particularly the cases of drug smuggling.