Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Thursday he wanted to work with his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte to develop the two countries' relationship despite "complicated changes in the region and the world" as they met amid simmering tensions over the South China Sea.
The meeting was their eighth in the 3 years since Duterte took office, but came as the Philippine leader's Beijing-friendly policies faced growing criticism at home prompting him to promise he would discuss the matter with Xi.
Tensions between China and many of its neighbors and rivals in the South China Sea have been growing in recent months following a series of confrontations, but Xi used the meeting to call for the two countries to work to complete talks on a code of conduct for the disputed waters by 2021 at the latest.
Beijing has faced a growing backlash in the Philippines since a Chinese ship sank a Filipino fishing boat in June. Manila has also complained about repeated unauthorized passages by Chinese warships this year through waters it claims.
State broadcaster CCTV reported that Xi had told Duterte: "I am willing to work with you to continue leading the development of the China-Philippines relationship with a strategic and long-term perspective."
Duterte was "steadfast" in raising the South China Sea issue, including the Philippines' victory against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, said his spokesman and chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo.
The Filipino leader told his Chinese counterpart that "the arbitral award is final, binding and not subject to appeal," Panelo said.
"In response, President Xi reiterated his government’s position of not recognizing the arbitral ruling as well as not budging from its position," he said.
The call to agree on a code of conduct by 2021 was largely expected. Last month, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China and the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had completed the first reading of the text ahead of schedule.
Duterte was expected to formally raise the South China Sea dispute for the first time during the meeting, having previously promised he would discuss the topic "whether you like it or not".
Despite this, the pair are expected to agree to move forward with a plan for joint exploration of oil and gas in the contested waters.
Raising the South China Sea dispute is a high-stakes move for Duterte, who has previously overlooked a 2016 international tribunal that ruled in favor of Manila.
However, the Philippine ambassador to China said "the time has come" to bring up the topic, noting that in the past three years Duterte had "asserted a lot of diplomatic capital to build a reservoir of goodwill and friendship with President Xi".
"We have no illusions that we can solve the issue overnight. I think the important thing is to bring it to the floor of the diplomatic agenda," ambassador Chito Sta Romana said, adding that "the disputes do not define the totality of the relations".
The Philippine envoy also said that the two countries would move ahead with a joint oil and gas exploration deal signed in November, but that it must be in accordance with both Philippine and Chinese laws as well as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
State news agency Xinhua reported that a "joint steering committee" consisting of diplomats and energy officials and "joint entrepreneurial working committees" made of business figures involved in the project were established after the meeting.
Manila has reportedly pushed for a 60-40 split in revenue.
While the ratio is yet to be confirmed, Sta Romana said Beijing had shown a willingness to be "flexible and pragmatic" because of the improving relations between the two countries, adding that they would continue to discuss the areas to be covered in the joint exploration deal.
Duterte is due to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Friday. He will also travel to Guangdong province, where he will attend a basketball game with Vice-President Wang Qishan before returning home on Saturday.
-- with reports from ABS-CBN News and Kyodo News
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