China and the Philippines will launch a bilateral mechanism to discuss South China Sea disputes, an official joint statement said on Friday.
The two countries issued the statement after President Xi Jinping met his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing, and the two heads of state agreed to “fully recover” relations that had been damaged by their maritime dispute.
“Both sides agree to continue discussions on confidence-building measures … and to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the South China Sea that would complicate or escalate disputes,” the statement said. It did not mention the international court ruling in July on the disputes, which had been the trigger of increased bilateral tensions.
Meanwhile, a US warship carried out a freedom-of-navigation operation on Friday near Triton and Woody islands in the Paracels, claimed by Beijing, Taipei and Hanoi, US officials told Reuters. It was the US navy’s fourth operation of its kind in the disputed waters since October last year.
The Philippines filed the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013 to challenge the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim to most of the South China Sea. The tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines, a ruling China rejected.
Disputes would be resolved through “friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned”, according to the statement. That echoed China’s stance of not letting any third party or country outside the region get involved in the disputes, which would exclude the US and Japan.
Duterte had also announced in Beijing his “separation” from long-time ally the United States, and a move closer to China. He will visit Japan next week after meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel back in Manila.
The statement said the proposed bilateral mechanism between China and the Philippines would be an addition to existing ones. The proposed mechanism would include regular discussions on each side’s concerns over the South China Sea, and the two countries would build trust, increase confidence and exercise self-restraint in conducting activities in the disputed waters, it said.
Beijing and Manila also reiterated the importance of peace and stability, as well as freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
They also promised to stick to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and to try to establish a code of conduct in the waters as soon as possible.
The coastguards of the two countries would cooperate to deal with humanitarian, environmental and emergency incidents in the South China Sea, the statement said.
It was a diplomatic victory for China, particularly over the US, said Professor Wang Hanling, a specialist on maritime issues and international law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“But it was not China’s unilateral victory. For the Philippines, it was also a win-win situation, because the South China Sea disputes could not be solved overnight, but having a good relationship with China could only benefit their economy,” he added.
Responding to the US Navy’s recent exercise, the Chinese foreign ministry called the manoeuvre “illegal” and “provocative”. Spokesman Wu Qian, a colonel, criticised the US as a troublemaker that aimed to sow disorder in the world.