Marcos Says South China Sea a ‘Work in Progress’ After Xi Talk

(Bloomberg) — Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping met Friday for the second time this year to discuss ways to ease tensions in the South China Sea.

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“We really should view this as a work in progress. It’s a process,” Marcos told reporters Friday after a pull-aside meeting with Xi in San Francisco where both leaders are attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. While both agree that the South China Sea issue shouldn’t be the defining element of the two nations’ relationship, “the problems remain and it is something that we need to continue to communicate,” he said.

Ahead of the meeting, Marcos said he wanted to seek Xi’s views on what they can do to “bring down the temperature, to not escalate the situation” in the disputed sea, according to a statement by the Presidential Communications Office.

The two leaders last met in January, when they agreed to settle differences in the South China Sea and pursue oil exploration. Still, tense encounters between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the contested waters in recent months strained bilateral relations.

Manila has repeatedly protested “harassment” from Chinese vessels, but Beijing has maintained its actions are lawful. Earlier this month, the Philippines said China’s coast guard used a water cannon on a boat carrying provisions for Filipino troops stationed at a military outpost in the Second Thomas Shoal. In late October, several of the two nations’ vessels collided at sea.

“I voiced to him my concern about some of the incidents that were happening,” Marcos told reporters, adding it was the Philippine leader who requested the meeting. “I think sincerity exists for all parties involved. I do not think anybody wants to go to war.”

Apart from the maritime dispute, China and the Philippines are also facing issues such as stalled infrastructure funding. Manila has dropped plans to get Chinese loans for three rail projects worth more than $5 billion, with a top Philippine official saying Beijing “appeared to be no longer interested.”

As ties with China frayed, Marcos has bolstered his nation’s longstanding alliance with the US, expanding America’s access to Philippine military sites and holding larger joint defense exercises. President Joe Biden reassured Marcos during a May meeting of the US’s “ironclad” commitment to defend the Philippines in case of an armed attack in the disputed sea.

–With assistance from Cliff Venzon.

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