By Associated Press - Wednesday, January 4, 2023

BEIJING (AP) — Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is pushing for closer economic ties on a visit to China that seeks to sidestep territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The countries have both been rocked by economic crises linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, but are looking to recharge investments in bridges and other projects, along with tourism and agriculture.

Marcos, who held separate meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, said the Philippines and China have an opportunity to revitalize their relationship and deepen cooperation and partnership, his office said in a news release.

He acknowledged though that the two countries have some difficulties that they have to deal with, the release said.

The visit comes against the background of disputes over islands and waters in the strategic South China Sea.

China‘s official Xinhua News Agency said that both sides “agreed to handle maritime issues properly through friendly consultation” and resume talks on oil and gas exploration.

Xi named agriculture, infrastructure, energy and culture as four key areas of cooperation. He said that China is willing to assist in agriculture and rural development in the Philippines and in infrastructure and connectivity projects, Xinhua reported.

Accompanied by a large business delegation, Marcos had said he will seek to finalize major infrastructure agreements during the visit.

China accounts for 20% of the Philippines’ foreign trade and is also a major source of foreign direct investment.

Marcos received a commitment from Xi to address the Philippines‘ trade deficit with China, his office said. The two sides are finalizing rules for imports of fruits from the Philippines, which Marcos said would start to balance the trade.

The Philippine leader said he also looked forward to the return of Chinese tourists once the COVID-19 situation in China settles. Last year, only about 9,500 Chinese visited the Philippines, down from about 1.6 million before the pandemic.

In comments to the head of China‘s ceremonial legislature, Li Zhanshu, Marcos said the two countries “be able to face the challenges and the different shocks that now we are already beginning to feel and will be continue to feel in the next few years.”

China‘s increasingly assertive territorial claims have placed the Philippines in a quandary, most pointedly in regards to China‘s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. Beijing has ignored a 2016 ruling by a tribunal in The Hague brought by the Philippines that invalidated Beijing’s claims to the waterway.

China has since developed disputed reefs into artificial islands with airplane runways and other structures so they now resemble forward military bases.

Most recently, a Filipino military commander reported that the Chinese coast guard forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris that Philippine navy personnel had retrieved in the South China Sea last month.

China denied the forcible seizure. Marcos said he would seek further clarification on his visit to Beijing.

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