China and the Philippines have retained “important backstage” contacts to improve bilateral ties affected by the South China Sea dispute, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Wednesday.
The inauguration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte two months ago was an opportunity for the two sides to repair their relationship, which had been damaged by the Philippines initiating international arbitration on the South China Sea, according to China’s deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin.
“Apart from the publicly reported contacts such as the Hong Kong trip by ex-president [Fidel] Ramos to meet his old Chinese friends, there have been important exchanges behind the scenes,” Liu said in Beijing.
“The Chinese ambassador to the Philippines is also in close contact with Duterte himself, his team and his foreign ministry.”
Liu said such exchanges could bring the South China Sea dispute back on track to be properly resolved through bilateral dialogue.
Former Philippine president Ramos visited Hong Kong as a special envoy of Duterte last month.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, in 2013 filed a case to the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration challenging China’s vast claims and assertive activities in the much-contested South China Sea.
The move angered Beijing, which refused to take part in the legal proceedings and insisted
the issues be dealt with through bilateral negotiation.
Liu was speaking at a press conference about a trip by Premier Li Keqiang to Laos next week for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.
Li will also have bilateral meetings during his stay in Vientiane.
Observers will be watching closely to see if the Chinese leader and the Philippine president meet for the first time since the arbitration ruling and personally discuss the tensions in the South China Sea.“Whether they will meet depends on further contacts between the two sides,” Liu said.
Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the backstage contact would be non-official talks conducted by various “friends” of the Philippines in China and ex-Philippine leaders.
“In backstage contacts, the Philippines will take the initiative because Duterte cannot afford an increasingly deteriorating relationship with China,” Wu said.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang