The leaders of China and the Philippines have agreed to "appropriately manage differences" over the situation in the South China Sea "through peaceful means," emphasizing that maritime issues "do not comprise the sum total" of bilateral relations, their joint statement showed Thursday.

During their summit talks Wednesday in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Philippine counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jr. agreed to resume discussions on joint oil and gas development in the South China Sea at an early date and reaffirmed the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the area, it said.

Marcos said at a Beijing press conference shortly before wrapping up his three-day visit to China that the Philippines has secured pledges from Chinese investors amounting to about $22 billion, including projects that are already under way.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and his Philippine counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jr. are pictured at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Jan. 4, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Philippine presidential office)(Kyodo)

China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which is rich in natural resources and serves as a critical trade route.

Previous bilateral statements had said the two countries seek to address disputes related to the South China Sea through negotiations "by sovereign states directly concerned," reflecting Beijing's desire to prevent interference by other countries including the United States.

But the latest document released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not include such an expression, indicating a concession by Beijing.

Under the administration of Marcos' predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, the two countries held three years of talks on joint exploration of energy resources in the South China Sea. But the Philippines said last year the negotiations had been terminated amid tensions over overlapping territorial claims in the waters.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the two countries will promote cooperation on oil and gas exploration in "non-disputed areas."

Xi and Marcos also agreed to establish a direct communication mechanism between the two countries' foreign ministries on the South China Sea situation, sharing the view that confidence-building measures would contribute to improving mutual trust.

During the summit meeting, Marcos brought up the plight of Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea whose operations have been disrupted by Chinese vessels, with Xi agreeing to "find a solution" and compromise to protect their livelihoods, the Philippine presidential office said.

The Philippine president said lack of communication was behind incidents involving fishermen and coast guard officials in the South China Sea and that he wanted to "raise the level of discussion to maybe a ministerial level" between the two countries so as to minimize confrontation.

Marcos was paying his first state visit outside Southeast Asia since taking office in June last year, traveling with a business delegation.

His meeting with Xi came as the Philippine leader vowed to take a different path from Duterte, known for his soft-handed approach toward China, and move toward strengthening ties between Manila and Washington.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a press conference in Beijing on Thursday the just-concluded Marcos visit was "another milestone" in the bilateral friendly relations, setting the direction and laying the foundation for their future.

The Philippine leader extended an invitation to Xi to visit his country again at a mutually convenient time, according to the statement.

Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the U.S think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Marcos' meeting with Xi signaled his desire to "maintain stable relations with China, and to attract Chinese economic interest, while deepening the alliance with the United States."

Poling warned, however, implementation of bilateral agreements signed this time will likely "fall far short of expectations," with Beijing's "continued coercion" in the South China Sea.

The two sides also expressed their readiness to establish an information notification system for rocket launches and work on procedures for the retrieval and return of space debris, according to the statement.

In November last year, Philippine authorities said the Chinese coast guard had "forcefully" retrieved rocket debris that a Philippine naval boat was towing to a nearby island in the South China Sea, following Chinese rocket launches.

At that time, Mao argued that the debris was handed over "after friendly consultations" and denied any interception or use of force at the scene.

On the economic front, the two countries agreed to further increase trade and return to and even surpass the pre-pandemic bilateral trade volume. They also signed an updated accord on cooperation on China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

The accord was among 14 documents signed on bilateral cooperation listed in the statement, including those covering agriculture and tourism.

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