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Philippine president seeks improved ties with mainland China

By Teresa Cerojano

MANILA -- Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said Wednesday he hopes the new leaders who take over China next month can improve bilateral ties that were strained following a standoff last year at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

Relations have slightly improved due to recent talks, Aquino said, and since Philippine ships pulled out of the Scarborough Shoal. He said Chinese vessels have been in and out but there is freedom of navigation.

But the core issue — who has sovereign rights over the tiny, uninhabited rocks off the northern Philippine island of Luzon — has not been resolved and overshadows relations.

The Philippines wants international arbitration, which Beijing has ruled out. Manila also wants a broader agreement between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to tackle the disputes, while China prefers to negotiate individually with each claimant.

Aquino said he is hopeful that after the transition to a new leadership — when top leaders of the ruling Communist Party take over next month — Chinese domestic pressures will ease and “there will be more room to negotiate on a more reasonable term and less ultranationalist tones.”

The Chinese public was vocal in challenging Manila over the shoal, canceling vacations to the Philippines and urging the government to stand firm.

Various longstanding disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei straddle busy shipping lanes in the South China Sea that are believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. Many fear the disputes could spark bigger conflicts.

Aquino said China recently initiated discussions to resolve the issue and both parties were adhering to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“There is some degree of change in terms of a little bettering of the situation — I have to emphasize a little bettering — of the situation compared to where it was at the height of the tensions,” Aquino told international media in Manila. “But we're still a long way off from really getting back to where it was.”

He expressed hope a solution can be found that satisfies multilateral concerns.

Aquino said the Philippines is trying to ease tensions, saying the government asked a petroleum company that was awarded a contract to explore oil deposits in another contested area to coordinate its activities with authorities to avoid causing any conflicts.

The area, Reed Bank, is where two Chinese ships tried to drive away a Philippine oil exploration vessel in March last year.

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