Beijing said on Friday that it would welcome a trip to China by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte “as soon as possible”.
The comments from Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying came amid signs the two countries are working to overcome tensions in the aftermath of an international tribunal ruling in The Hague, and pave the way for a possible visit by Duterte.
Hua’s remarks are the clearest signals so far that bilateral talks could take place soon.
“The friendly ties between China and the Philippines are in accordance with the fundamental interests of the countries and the expectations of their people,” Hua said.
“Exchanges between leaders from the two countries have significant meaning to the understanding and mutual trust of both sides, and to improve relations.”
It followed deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin’s assurance on Wednesday that China and the Philippines had retained “important backstage” contact to improve bilateral ties affected by the South China Sea dispute.
Liu said Duterte’s inauguration two months ago was an opportunity for the two countries to repair their relationship, which had been damaged by the Philippines’ decision to initiate international arbitration on China’s claims to much of the South China Sea.
Liu said that in addition to former Philippine president Fidel Ramos’ trip to Hong Kong last month, China’s ambassador to the Philippines had also been in direct contact with Duterte.
He said such exchanges could put discussions on the South China Sea dispute back on track so the issues could be properly resolved through bilateral dialogue.
Beijing also said earlier that it would welcome a visit to China by Ramos, who acted as a special envoy between the two countries.
Hua yesterday also said China was “open” to the idea that Duterte and Premier Li Keqiang could meet on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Laos next week.
A Philippine foreign ministry official said Southeast Asian countries and China would use the Laos summit to establish hotlines and adopt communications protocols to avoid potential naval clashes in the contested waters.
The mechanism, called the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, would be a new protocol for both Asean and China, Philippine foreign affairs assistant secretary Helen de la Vega said.
“It’s one way of de-escalating tensions in the South China Sea,” she said, adding that hotlines between China and the governments of the Asean members would be established.
Duterte said last week that he expected talks with China on their South China Sea dispute “within a year” and he would not raise the international ruling when he attended the East Asia Summit.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague infuriated China in July when it ruled that China had no historical title over the South China Sea and it had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights with various actions there.
The Philippines, under the administration of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, launched the legal challenge in 2013 against China’s claims to most of the waters.
China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea, including waters approaching Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Additional reporting by Reuters