China, Philippines Try to Defuse Sea Tensions After Flare-Up

(Bloomberg) -- Chinese and Philippine diplomats agreed to ease South China Sea tensions but stood firm on their nations’ claims during a meeting that followed one of their most serious maritime clashes.

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Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong and Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ma. Theresa Lazaro had “frank and constructive” discussions at a regular bilateral meeting on the South China Sea in Manila on Tuesday, according to the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs. A similar meeting among senior diplomats was held in Shanghai in January.

Both sides “affirmed their commitment to de-escalate tensions without prejudice to their respective positions” and also “recognized that there is a need to restore trust,” according to Manila’s statement. It noted a “substantial progress” in steps to manage the situation at sea while saying that “significant differences” with Beijing remain.

Philippines and Chinese vessels clashed in recent months despite a January agreement to ease conflict, casting doubts on the effectiveness of the bilateral mechanism to defuse tensions in one of the region’s flashpoints. Chinese vessels used water cannons on Philippine ships in the past months, damaging them and hurting their crew, while Beijing has maintained that its actions were lawful and professional.

Tuesday’s talks come weeks after a June 17 South China Sea encounter between Chinese and Philippine vessels that led to a Filipino sailor losing a finger. That incident was described by Philippines Navy spokesperson Roy Vincent Trinidad on Tuesday as the “most aggressive” action by Chinese forces in recent history.

During the meeting, the Philippines said it underscored to China that it will be “relentless in protecting its interests” and upholding its rights in the South China Sea.

China, for its part, also reiterated its claims over the waterway, including the Second Thomas Shoal, which has emerged as an epicenter of the dispute. Beijing urged the Philippines to “immediately stop its maritime infringement and provocative acts,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Tensions between the two nations could be lower in the short term as they both intend to de-escalate, said Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Lowy Institute in Sydney. “However, the disputes will not be resolved and at some point, it is likely that China will again put pressure on the Philippines.”

Beijing’s sweeping claims have been met with strong pushback from Manila under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has bolstered ties with US and Japan. Marcos said last week that Manila needs to do more than filing diplomatic protests against China following the clash.

Beijing and Manila also agreed on Tuesday to improve maritime communications, and will further discuss cooperation between their coast guards. The two nations also talked about possibly convening an academic forum on marine cooperation.

--With assistance from Phila Siu and Niluksi Koswanage.

(Adds more details from statement, analyst voice.)

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