MANILA, Philippines (AP) — China's top diplomat asked the Philippines Tuesday not to raise contentious issues — an obvious reference to the Asian neighbors' territorial spats — in an annual economic summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Manila next week, a Filipino official said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's request, relayed to his Philippine counterpart Albert del Rosario during talks in Manila, underscored Beijing's objection to any effort to bring the long-raging disputes to an international arena, where rivals like Washington could use it to criticize Beijing.
Non-inclusion of the thorny topic would also shield Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is expected to attend the Nov. 18-19 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Manila, from a potentially embarrassing confrontation.
"They said they hope that contentious issues will not be raised during APEC," Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said in a news conference, when asked if the disputes were discussed in Wang's hour-long talk with del Rosario.
Wang also mentioned that his Manila visit was to ensure that Xi's visit "will be smooth, safe and successful," Jose said.
Wang also met President Benigno Aquino III in the first visit by a top Chinese official to Manila since the two Asian neighbors' relations soured in the last three years due to overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a regional conflict that involves four other Asian governments, whose leaders are attending the Manila meetings.
The last time a Chinese foreign minister visited the Philippines was in 2009 and Jose said Wang's visit in itself "is an indication that we can move the bilateral relations forward."
Aquino said he welcomed Xi's decision to join the meetings and promised "the warmth of Filipino hospitality," according to presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma.
The Philippines, Jose said, agreed that the meetings in Manila would not be the proper forum to discuss the conflicts, adding that Manila has a pending legal challenge against Beijing's massive claims in the South China Sea before an international tribunal in The Hague.
"In the context of APEC, we both agreed that APEC is an economic forum and it won't be a proper venue to discuss political and security issues," Jose said.
Asked if other leaders can raise the thorny issue, Jose said they can.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday that APEC was primarily an economic forum, and it was up to the hosts to set the agenda, but the South China Sea could still be discussed on the sidelines. He said when the U.S. meets with allies and partners in the region it's an issue "that does come up."
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Monday that the China-Philippine relationship faces difficulties, but that China is committed to "resolving relevant issues through consultations and negotiations."
China has criticized last month's patrol of the USS Lassen, a U.N. Navy guided-missile destroyer, within the 12-nautical-mile (22-kilometer) territorial limit of Subi Reef, which has been transformed by Beijing into an island over objections of other claimants, particularly the Philippines.
China, the Philippines and four other governments have claims across the vast South China Sea, with Beijing claiming it has sovereignty over virtually all of the waters. Some of the disputed areas are believed to sit atop vast undersea deposits of oil and gas.
Jose said the two sides also agreed to resume bilateral consultations at the vice foreign minister level "to explore areas where we can move bilateral relations forward."
It is the Philippines' turn to host such a meeting, the date of which is still to be discussed. The last such consultation took place in 2013.
But the consultations will exclude contentious issues like the South China Sea as agreed to by Aquino and then President Hu Jintao during Aquino's state visit to China in 2011, Jose said.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.