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‘We’re neighbours and blood brothers’: Xi tells Duterte as firebrand leader announces ‘separation’ from US

President Xi Jingping told his Philippines counterpart Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday that the two countries could put aside disputes and improve ties.

“This truly has milestone significance for China-Philippines relations,” Xi said, praising Duterte’s landmark visit to Beijing to reset the relationship that had been damaged by territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

In a further sign of his shifting allegiances, Duterte said he was announcing his “separation” from the United States at a business forum in the afternoon in the presence of Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

On the South China Sea issue, Xi suggested the two sides “temporarily put aside” the disputes, and learn from the “political wisdom” of history when the two nations had successfully kept their differences in check through talks.

“As long as we stick to friendly dialogue and consultation, we can frankly exchange views on any problem, manage differences, discuss cooperation, and temporarily put aside what is hard to reach by consensus,” Xi said.

Xi said although relations had “weathered storms, the foundation … of their relations would not be changed” as the two countries were neighbours across the sea and the two peoples were blood-linked brothers.

South China Sea dispute to ‘take back seat’ in talks with Xi, Duterte says

“We have no reason to take a hostile attitude or confront each other,” he said. “I hope we can follow the wishes of the people and use this visit as an opportunity to push China-Philippines relations back on a friendly footing and fully improve things.”

Duterte said improved and developed relationships would benefit both peoples.

“Even as we arrive in Beijing close to winter, this is the springtime of our relationship,” he told Xi at the Great Hall of People.

He hoped the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank could play a role in Philippine economic development, and said his country would work to promote China-ASEAN relations in regional issues.

The two leaders later oversaw the signing of 13 of agreements on ranging from trade and investment to drug control, maritime security and infrastructure.

Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters that China and the Philippines had agreed on Thursday that disputes in the South China Sea were not the sum total of their relations and that the two countries would restore consultations on diplomatic and defence matters.

“It means that a new page has now opened between the two countries in addressing the South China Sea issue through bilateral dialogue and consultation,” Liu said.

He also said China would restore Philippine agricultural exports to China and that Beijing would provide financing support for Philippine infrastructure projects.

On the eve of the meeting Duterte said that “it’s time to say goodbye” to the US as his foreign policy veered towards China.

“I will not ask but if they (the Chinese) offer and if they’ll ask me, do you need this aid? [I will say] Of course, we are very poor,”” he told hundreds of Filipinos in Beijing on Wednesday night.

“I will not go to America anymore … We will just be insulted there,” he added.

But Xu Liping, a senior fellow at the China Academy of Social Sciences, said Duterte’s statement did not necessarily mean that the Philippines would lean to China.

“It’s a pendulum effect,” said Xu. “Duterte is just adjusting and revising his predecessor’s excessive one-sided policy towards the US. I would not call him ‘inclining to China’”.

As ties warmed up, China might be able to resume some of the Philippines halted infrastructure projects like a railway in the northern Philippines, and open other, Xu said. The Philippines form an important part of Xi’s One Belt One Road development plan.

Geopolitically, Duterte’s distancing from the US would reduce the stake the US has in the region, which could lower the pressure on China from the US “Asia rebalance” strategy and improve China’s strategic environment, said Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asia expert at Jinan University in Guangzhou.

Next year the Philippines will be the rotating chair of the Asean, where the South China Sea disputes have been on the agenda.

“Without an improved relationship, the Philippines would use the Asean platform to embarrass China on the South China Sea issue,” said Zhang.

Playing the US against China may prove a smart move for Rodrigo Duterte

“China and the Philippines are neighbours across the sea and the two peoples are blood brothers,” Xi said.

He added that both sides should “appropriately handle disputes”, although he did not specifically mention conflicts over the South China Sea.

“I hope we can follow the wishes of the people and use this visit as an opportunity to push China-Philippines relations back on a friendly footing and fully improve things,” he said.