Fresh off the Chinese president’s tours of Vietnam and Singapore last week, China’s Foreign Ministry had another announcement on Monday: Xi Jinping also plans to attend the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit, to be held November 18-19 in the Philippines. That will bring Xi into the lion’s den, so to speak. Manila has been one of the most outspoken critics of China’s moves in the South China Sea, even filing a case against China in an international arbitral tribunal. It’s another indication that China is trying to mend frayed relationship with ASEAN states, even as Xi shows no sign of changing his country’s approach to the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
Tensions between China and the Philippines are especially high. Philippine President Benigno Aquino hasn’t met with Xi since last year’s APEC summit in Beijing, when the two had a brief encounter on the sidelines of the summit. According to Marciano Paynor, the head of the Philippines’ APEC organizing committee, an official bilateral meeting between the two leaders has not yet been scheduled, but they are expected to meet.
China, however, hopes that Xi won’t face questions or criticism about the South China Sea issue at the APEC summit. Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong, who gave a press conference on Xi’s attendance at the APEC summit, said that “as far as I know, at this year’s summit, there are no plans to discuss the South China Sea.”
“Everyone knows that APEC is primarily about discussing trade and financial cooperation in the Asia Pacific,” he said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi carried a similar message on a working visit to the Philippines on Tuesday, part of the final preparations for Xi’s visit next week. According to Charles Jose, Wang’s delegation “expressed hope the contentious issues will not be raised” at the summit. Jose pledged that the Philippines “will endeavor on our side not to raise contentious maritime issues,” saying that APEC is “not the proper forum” for such discussions. However, Jose said Manila would not prevent other leaders from raising the issue.
Both China and the Philippines seem eager to take advantage of the opportunity presented by Manila hosting APEC to move bilateral relations forward. Wang’s visit to the Philippines was the first by a Chinese foreign minister since 2009, and Xi’s trip to Manila will mark his first time in the country since assuming office. Wang’s visit alone was a hopeful sign “that we can move the bilateral relations forward,” Jose said.
According to a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told Wang that Manila is looking forward to welcoming Xi. He added that Wang’s visit also provides an opportunity for the two sides “to revisit the agreement between President Benigno S. Aquino III and then-Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2011 that contentious issues can be segregated from the rest of the bilateral relations.” In other words, Manila hopes it can find a way to prevent the South China Sea disputes from poisoning its overall relationship with China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters that Wang and del Rosario would “exchange views on how to improve the relationship between China and the Philippines.” Hong added, “The bilateral relationship is beset by difficulties due to reasons known to all. This is not what the Chinese side wants to see.”
Aquino himself met with Wang and reassured the foreign minister that Xi would get a warm welcome in Manila: “He assured the foreign minister that it is in the culture of the Filipinos as hosts to make our guests feel the warmth of Filipino hospitality,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. told reporters.
Aquino added that, if he does meet with Xi, he wants to stress the importance of stability in the region. “All our governments are supposed to be there for the improvement of the lot of our people, improvement in their lives, and this can only happen if there’s stability,” he said.
Beyond a possible bilateral meeting with Aquino, Xi will also be seeking to shape the agenda of APEC. Vice Foreign Minister Li told reporters that Xi “will deliver an important speech at the meeting, elaborating on our policies and ideas on cooperation in the Asia Pacific region.” At the same press conference, Vice Minister of Commerce Wang Shouwen said Xi would continue to emphasize the idea of a free-trade area spanning the Asia-Pacific region, which Xi also highlighted during the APEC summit in Beijing last year.