Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. started Tuesday a three-day trip to China with the leader expected to broach the issue of the South China Sea, where Manila has overlapping territorial claims with Beijing, as both countries set a fresh tone for their relations.
The trip marks Marcos' first state visit outside Southeast Asia since he took office in June last year. His predecessor Rodrigo Duterte was known for his appeasement of Beijing, taking an accommodating stance toward China's incursions in waters claimed by Manila in exchange for promised investment from the major Asian economy.
In a speech before departing Manila, Marcos said he is looking forward to meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping "as we work toward shifting the trajectory of our relations to a higher gear" that will hopefully bring numerous prospects and abundant opportunities for the peace and development of both countries.
The Philippine president also expressed eagerness to discuss "political security issues of bilateral and regional nature" with Xi. "We will seek to resolve those issues to the mutual benefit of our two countries," he added.
Marcos may also continue his discussions with Xi on a possible joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, according to a senior Philippine Foreign Ministry official. The two held their first summit talks in Bangkok in November.
Foreign Assistant Secretary for Asian and Public Affairs Neal Imperial said last Thursday that Marcos wants a "peaceful and stable" situation in the South China Sea and will "continue to uphold our country's sovereignty."
He said the two countries are expected to sign an accord on establishing a "direct communication" line to avoid "miscalculations" in the South China Sea.
A business delegation is traveling with Marcos and more than 10 bilateral agreements are expected to be signed on cooperation in areas including trade and investment, as well as infrastructure, Imperial said.
The two countries also plan to renew an accord on Manila's participation in China's signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, he added.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last Friday the two countries are "close neighbors facing each other across the sea" and expressed Beijing's willingness to "upgrade the bilateral relationship and accelerate its growth, and usher in a new 'golden age' in bilateral friendship."
China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which is rich with minerals and serves as a critical trade route.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague invalidated China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea, but Beijing has rejected the decision and continued its military buildup in the area.
In December, Manila said it was "seriously concerned" about reports of China's fresh reclamation on unoccupied islands in the South China Sea, saying it contravened the principles of self-restraint in a 2012 agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations including the Philippines.