Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said the South China Sea dispute was “not on the agenda” as he began his state visit to China late on Tuesday, with Beijing praising him for bringing damaged ties back to “the track of dialogue and cooperation”.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said ahead of Duterte’s arrival that the visit was “historic” and that no “individual” or “foreign force” could stand in the way of rebuilding the friendship between China and the Philippines. “Our arms are open and ready for friendship and cooperation,” Wang said.
Duterte arrived in China three months after relations between the two nations hit an all-time low, following an international court ruling that there was no legal basis for Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea.
Duterte’s delegation includes some 400 business leaders. He is scheduled to meet President Xi Jinping on Thursday.
Arriving at his hotel in Beijing, Duterte said he expected to achieve “plenty of happiness for my country” during his trip to China, according to Reuters.
Asked about the South China Sea dispute, he said: “No, that is not one of the topics on the agenda. It might crop up but it is going to be a soft landing for everyone. No impositions.”
Analysts said Beijing would tolerate Duterte raising territorial disputes in the South China Sea during his visit as long as he didn’t push the issue too hard.
Doing so could jeopardise his goal of securing economic aid and business deals, they said. “Duterte’s main task in Beijing is to repair bilateral relations and secure cooperation, especially in economic areas, which are critical to him,” Wu Shicun, the president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said.
China also wants the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to be forgotten as quickly as possible, according to Xue Li, a researcher at the China Academy of Social Sciences.
As a result, the originally planned two-day trip has been elevated to a four-day state visit, the highest diplomatic level, to honour the Philippine leader.
Duterte will also meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and the chairman of the National People’s Congress, Zhang Dejiang.
The two presidents will issue a joint statement stressing areas of cooperation and witness the signing of a number of memorandas of understanding and agreements, in areas including agriculture, infrastructure construction, investment and trade, according to the Philippine foreign ministry.
The presidential joint statement would also push forward the approach of resolving the South China Sea dispute through cooperation, Xu Liping, a fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.
Analysts have said fishery cooperation near the disputed Scarborough Shoal could also be on the table.
Commerce Ministry spokesman Shen Danyang said ahead of Duterte’s arrival that China was looking to expand trade links with the Philippines, and that one area would be tropical fruit imports.
He added that China would also encourage its businesses to invest in the Philippines, and strengthen bilateral infrastructure construction.
Wu said China expected and “fully understands” that Duterte would probably raise the arbitration ruling given pressure from the Philippine people and the political opposition. “Otherwise he could not answer to his fellow citizens,” Wu said.
Song Junying, an expert in Asia-Pacific affairs at the China Institute of International Studies, said a brief mention of the arbitration would slightly affect the atmosphere of the talks, but it would be of little consequence as Duterte’s state visit marked a positive turn in relations.
“We could look at this with some tolerance,” Song said.
Wu also said it would be fine if Duterte raised the rulings “symbolically”, but “he’d better not insist on it, or demand to negotiate cooperation under this condition”.
“Duterte clearly understands that he will harvest nothing if he focuses on the controversial Hague ruling during his trip,” said Wu, who is close to the Chinese authorities.
Dai Fan, a Southeast Asia affairs expert at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said both sides had already worked out the agenda before Duterte left for Beijing.
“It is impossible he’s come all the way to Chinese territory to slap China in the face,” Dai said.