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Philippines confronting Chinese diplomats over sea disputes

                                Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong, right, listens while Filipino Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro, left, speaks during a bilateral meeting in Manila, Philippines on Friday.
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Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong, right, listens while Filipino Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro, left, speaks during a bilateral meeting in Manila, Philippines on Friday.

MANILA, Philippines >> Filipino diplomats are expected to unleash a slew of protests over China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, including targeting a Philippine coast guard ship with a powerful military laser, when they meet with Chinese officials Friday, an official said.

Territorial disputes in the busy waterway have long loomed as a potential flashpoint in Asia and have become a sensitive front in the regional rivalry between China and the United States.

Washington lays no claims in the contested waters but has challenged Beijing’s extensive claims including by deploying its warships and fighter jets and repeatedly warning that it would help defend the Philippines — a treaty ally — if Philippine forces, ships and aircraft are attacked. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the seaway, which sits atop vast deposits of oil and gas.

A Chinese delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong has been holding two days of talks starting Thursday with Philippine counterparts led by Foreign Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro to review overall relations. The two sides would focus on their territorial disputes Friday, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said.

The talks opened with both sides citing an agreement between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who made a state visit to China in early January, to manage the territorial conflicts amicably while enhancing economic ties and other aspects of a nearly half-century of diplomatic relations.

“We should not allow specific differences to define our bilateral relations or allow certain disputes to stand in the way of overall cooperation,” Sun said in an opening speech before journalists were asked to leave the meeting room. “We need to properly deal with these issues through friendly consultations.”

A Philippine official involved in the talks told The Associated Press that Filipino diplomats would outline several incidents underscoring China’s assertiveness in the disputed waters. That includes a Feb. 6 incident when a Chinese coast guard ship aimed a military-grade laser that briefly blinded some crew members of a Philippine patrol vessel off a disputed shoal.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to publicly discuss what transpired in the meetings.

Marcos summoned the Chinese ambassador to Manila to express concern shortly after the laser-pointing incident. The Philippine coast guard caught the incident on video, which it made public, but Beijing countered that the Philippine vessel intruded into Chinese territorial waters and that its coast guard used a harmless laser gadget to monitor the vessel’s movement.

Manila’s foreign affairs department condemned the Chinese coast guard’s action and sent a strongly worded protest to the Chinese Embassy. More than 200 such diplomatic protests have been lodged by the Philippines against China since last year, including at least 77 since Marcos took office in June, underlining how the longstanding conflicts have become a major irritant in relations with China early in his presidency.

China and the Philippines first held talks focusing on the disputes in 2017, but no major resolution has been reached as both sides stuck to their territorial stance. The consultations, nevertheless, help both sides understand each other’s position better “and make accidental crises a bit less likely,” said Washington-based analyst Greg Poling, who has studied the conflicts extensively.

“It has to be done with clear eyes and no expectation that the fundamental issues will be solved in the short term through that format,” Poling told the AP. “China is not interested in compromise and the positions of the two countries are not reconcilable.”

In early February, the Marcos administration announced it would allow rotating batches of American forces to indefinitely station in four more Philippine military camps. Those are in addition to five local bases earlier designated under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, between the allies.

Marcos told reporters Wednesday the four additional military sites would include areas in the northern Philippines. That location has infuriated Chinese officials because it would provide U.S. forces a staging ground close to southern China and Taiwan.

The Chinese diplomats expressed their strong opposition to an expanded U.S. military presence in the Philippines in closed-door talks on Thursday and warned of its future implications, the Philippine official told AP without elaborating.

The Filipino diplomats responded to China’s objections by saying an expanded American military presence serves their national interest and would boost Philippine capability to respond to natural disasters, the official said, suggesting the move was not aimed at targeting China.

Marcos said American forces would also be allowed to station in military areas on the western Philippine island province of Palawan, adding that the U.S. military presence would boost coastal defense.

Palawan faces the South China Sea, a key passage for global trade that Beijing claims virtually in its entirety.

Despite China’s objection to a further U.S. military presence in the Philippines, two senior Filipino officials told the AP that the Philippine government would extend the EDCA, which allows such a temporary presence of American forces. The Philippine Constitution prohibits the permanent basing of foreign troops in the country.

The EDCA, signed in 2014, would initially be effective for 10 years and would remain in force automatically unless terminated by either side with a one-year advance written notice.

The two officials, including a top security official, spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they lack authority to discuss the issue publicly.

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