Manila has chance to reset bilateral relations

Updated: 2016-06-01 07:58

(China Daily)

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Manila has chance to reset bilateral relations

Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte talks to reporters in Davao city in southern Philippines, May 9, 2016. [Photo/Agencies]

Under the leadership of outgoing President Benigno Aquino, the Philippines saw a freefall in relations with China, and the divergences with Beijing truly outgrew the bilateral framework.

The scenario could have been dramatically different had the Aquino administration accepted Beijing's offer to negotiate to keep the territorial disputes between the two countries from derailing overall relations.

Now, with Aquino outgoing as president and Rodrigo Duterte incoming, many entertain the hope that a reset button on relations can be pressed. Chinese President Xi Jinping included.

In his congratulatory message to Duterte, Xi expressed the wish that "both sides can work hard to push Sino-Philippine relations back onto a healthy development track".

This friendly overture is aimed at opening up a fresh chapter for ties in the post-Aquino era, and opens a window of opportunity for Beijing and Manila to rethink, readjust.

Given the messy state of affairs Duterte has inherited from his wayward predecessor, particularly the pending arbitration the Aquino administration initiated, China-Philippine relations could well be the first diplomatic hot potato for Duterte.

Beijing is not so naive as to expect Duterte to eat his own words on what he insists to be Philippine sovereignty. But Xi's message did show there are ways out, so long as Beijing and Manila share the political will and talk.

The territorial disputes between Beijing and Manila are not a long story. And the two countries generally got along well, even with the disputes. Their disagreements did not get in the way of overall relations until a few years ago, after instigators from outside the region stepped in and fanned the flames of discord.

Duterte, who will be sworn in on June 30, is yet to announce his policies toward China and on the South China Sea issue. However, he told the press on Sunday he wants friendly relations with China, and confirmed he is open to direct talks. He is also open to the possibility of joint exploration for resources with China. He even said he has an interest in Chinese assistance to meet his country's infrastructure needs.

From improving infrastructure to creating jobs and reducing poverty, Duterte has daunting development tasks to tackle. China's Belt and Road Initiative could be of great help with these, if the two governments can find a way to manage their disputes and clear the ground for cooperation.