The Philippines and China will establish direct communication between their foreign ministries to avoid “miscalculation and miscommunication” in the hotly disputed South China Sea, Manila said Thursday.
The deal will be signed next week during Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos’s visit to Beijing where he will meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, a foreign ministry official told reporters.
Marcos has insisted he will not let China trample on the Philippines’ maritime rights in the sea — in contrast to his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who was reluctant to criticise the superpower.
The Philippines last week ordered its military to boost their presence in the contested waters after a report that China had started reclaiming several unoccupied land features around the Spratly Islands.
“To avoid miscalculation and miscommunication in the West Philippine Sea, both sides have agreed to sign an agreement establishing… direct communication between the foreign ministries of both countries at various levels,” said Neal Imperial, Philippine assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific affairs.
Manila refers to the waters immediately west of the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea.
Imperial said the agreement would formalise “procedures” for contact between the two countries when a dispute arose.
“Before it could be a waiting game,” he said.
“It could be the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) doing it, could be other formal… contacts”.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has ignored an international court ruling that its claims have no legal basis.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of it.
During his meetings with Xi and other top leaders, Marcos would “continue to uphold our country’s sovereignty”, Imperial said.
“The president wants a peaceful and stable situation in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
China has reinforced its stance in the South China Sea by ripping up thousands of hectares of reef to create new land for artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.
The militarised islands feature runways, ports and radar systems.
Bloomberg reported last week, citing satellite images from US officials, that new land formations have emerged in the Spratlys, on Eldad Reef, Whitsun Reef, Lankiam Cay and Sandy Cay.
Manila said it was “seriously concerned” about the report and the following day ordered its military to strengthen their presence in the waters.
China’s foreign ministry called the report “completely groundless”.
Up to 14 bilateral agreements are expected to be signed during Marcos’s January 3-5 visit, which comes as China battles soaring Covid-19 cases.
Imperial said Marcos and his delegation, including former president Gloria Arroyo, senior ministers and business leaders, would travel in a “bubble” to reduce the risk of infection.
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