MANILA, Philippines — As the Philippines gears up for a hotly contested presidential election, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has urged the next leader to continue President Rodrigo Duterte’s China-friendly policy, saying it serves the interests of both countries.
Duterte, who took office in 2016, will step down after the May election in line with the country’s one-term limit.
Voters are highly concerned about relations with China and Beijing is watching closely for any shift in Manila’s policy on the South China Sea dispute, which has become a dangerous flashpoint in the region.
Without naming the US or its allies, Wang called for Manila to maintain “an independent and autonomous foreign policy” in the face of “provocations by a number of extraterritorial forces … in an attempt to undermine the good momentum” in bilateral ties.
In a taped address on Monday to officials and scholars at the opening of an online forum organised by the Chinese embassy in Manila, Wang said Duterte’s “strategic decision” was “fully in line with the fundamental interests” of both China and the Philippines as well as the region.
“I am sure that insightful people from both countries will stick to this right direction,” he told the Manila Forum for China-Philippines Relations, according to a transcript published by the Chinese foreign ministry.
On Monday, Wang also announced a 100 million yuan (US$15.7 million) relief package to the Philippines in the wake of Super Typhoon Rai, which slammed into the archipelago late last month leaving nearly 400 dead and thousands homeless.
Relations between the two countries were strained under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino when Manila took its South China Sea territorial dispute with Beijing to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and won.
But they took a U-turn after Duterte pledged to set aside the ruling that denied China’s claim, based on the nine-dash line that encompasses almost all the South China Sea.
In 2018, the two countries started negotiations for joint exploration and development of energy resources in the disputed waters, including Reed Bank, though no agreement has been reached.
Wang told the forum Beijing would not use its strength to bully its smaller neighbours. “Stressing only one side’s claims and imposing one’s own will on the other is not a proper way for neighbours to treat each other and it goes against the Oriental philosophy of how people should get along with each other,” he said.
As there was no sign the disputes could be resolved any time soon, the two sides “should put this issue in a proper place to prevent it from affecting or even abducting the overall China-Philippines relations”.
Wang said Beijing is willing to closely work with Manila to manage the disputes and the two sides “should resolve early on to move forward with joint development without prejudice to our respective claims”.
During his five-year term, Duterte has nurtured cordial ties with Beijing while moving away from the US, a long-standing treaty ally.
The Philippines has received billions in infrastructure investment funded or constructed by Chinese companies through President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. And in 2020, China was the Philippines’ largest trading partner.
But tensions have flared from time to time, particularly over the South China Sea, where China’s extensive claims over the resource-rich waterway are also disputed by other countries including Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
In November, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin claimed Chinese coastguard vessels “blocked and water cannoned” supply boats from the Philippines. The boats were on a resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal, an atoll in the Spratly Islands which is also claimed by China and Vietnam.
The US has also said it would defend the Philippines under its 1951 treaty.