Beijing and Manila are set to begin a series of bilateral consultations on their overlapping claims in the South China Sea, fulfilling China's longstanding desire for one-on-one negotiation. Last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague found that China's claims to the South China Sea – including waters claimed by the Philippines – are not legitimate under UNCLOS, a ruling that China has broadly ignored. Under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine government has emphasized economic relations with China and has downplayed the court's findings in favor of a diplomatic solution.
Philippines foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose suggested that China's request for two-party talks was a new development. “This is a new proposal, a bilateral consultation mechanism specifically on the South China Sea,” he told media. “China offered to host the initial meeting. This May, both sides will discuss the specific dates and the agenda."
While the talks are part of a trend of improving Philippine-Chinese relations, President Duterte has expressed contradictory views on how – and whether – his country's maritime claims should be defended. Last week, he said that he could not prevent China from building a base on Scarborough Shoal, as Chinese officials have suggested they may do. However, on Wednesday, he said that he had asked the U.S. ambassador to Manila why America hadn't used the threat of force to stop the Chinese island-building campaign, which is now substantially complete. "Had America really wanted to avoid trouble, early on . . . why did you not send the armada of the Seventh Fleet which is stationed there in the Pacific, you just make a U-turn and go there and tell them right on their face, stop it?" he said.
While he questioned why American forces had not intervened, he still maintained that the Philippines would not go to war over its outlying islands and maritime claims. "The first thing that will be blasted away from this planet Earth will be Palawan," he told the AP. "All of the deposits of armaments of the Americans, including ours, are there."