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All eyes on new Philippine president for repairing China ties

Editor: Zhang Pengfei 丨Xinhua

06-30-2016 13:39 BJT

Full coverage: The South China Sea Issue

BEIJING, June 30 (Xinhua) -- As Rodrigo Duterte takes over as Philippine president on Thursday, sparks of hope have arisen for a rapprochement between his country and China after relations soured during his predecessor's tenure.

Yet whether those sparks can turn into flames heating up bilateral relations depends on whether Duterte can translate his positive signals into concrete and effective action.

The tough-talking former mayor of Davao City in southern Philippines has pledged sweeping policy changes on both domestic and diplomatic fronts.

Since winning election, he has made a string of overtures on Philippines-China relations, signaling that mending fences with China would be a foreign policy priority. He has said that China will be the first country he visits after taking office.

Such gestures are encouraging, particularly against the backdrop of the strained bilateral relations during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, whose government repeatedly stoked tensions over the South China Sea.

In violation of Manila's agreement with Beijing to solve their South China Sea disputes via bilateral negotiations, the Aquino government unilaterally launched a compulsory arbitration case against China, not only undercutting its own trustworthiness but further complicating the row and the bilateral relationship.

Yet as many observers have noted, Duterte is also seeking U.S. support on the South China Sea issue among others and help in building the island country's regional clout.

So the new president still keeps his cards close to his chest. Whether he means what he has said about pursuing bilateral talks with China over the South China Sea disputes remains to be seen.

However, although the arbitration case has stolen much of the limelight on China-Philippines relations, the political farce staged by the Aquino government is far from being the whole picture of bilateral ties.

In 2015, China stood as the Philippines' largest source of imports second-largest trading partner, and third-largest export market. Bilateral trade reached 45.65 billion U.S. dollars, up 2.7 percent. Those figures offer just a glimpse of the close interaction between the two neighbors.

The incoming Philippine government has also voiced hopes for cooperating with China to develop the Southeast Asian country's infrastructure. Duterte has even reportedly said that he might seek joint exploration in the South China Sea, a principle China has long been advocating.

With China having rightly kept the door of dialogue open, the ball is in Manila's court. If Duterte's words about putting China-Philippines ties back on the right track are genuine, it is time for him to act.

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