'Talking to China the only solution,' PH official says as Chinese Coast Guard docks in Manila

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 14) — Officials of the Philippine Coast Guard on Tuesday welcomed Chinese counterparts on a week-long visit, marked by exploratory talks and exercises.

A marching band greeted the Chinese Coast Guard as its Vessel 5204 laid anchor at the Port of Manila, led by Major General Wang Zhongcai.

The visit was unprecedented, considering reports that the Chinese Coast Guard would harass Filipino fishermen and intimidate foreign ships in the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the South China Sea claimed and occupied by Manila and contested by Beijing.

Admiral Joel Garcia, commandant of the PCG, said it's about time they discuss sensitive maritime issues with the Chinese.

"Kahit may hidwaan tayo, wala pong ibang solusyon kundi diplomasya. Wala pong ibang solution kundi pumunta tayo sa isang lamesa, mag-usap harap-harapan, at sabihin natin ang ating hinaing," Garcia told reporters.

[Translation: Even if we have a conflict, there's no other solution but diplomacy. There's no other solution but to get to the negotiating table and talk, discuss our grievances.]

He said he will appeal to the Chinese Coast Guard to make sure Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea are safe.

"Ang hilingan natin sa kanila na sa ganang Pilipinas ay dapat mabigyan po ng ng karapatan mangisda traditionally ang ating mga Pilipino na hindi hinaharass," Garcia said.

[Translation: We will ask them to allow the Filipino fishermen to traditionally fish without being harassed.]

In an earlier media briefing, Garcia said he wants to prevent untoward maritime incidents like the Chinese vessel ramming and sinking Filipino boat Gem-Ver near Recto Bank in June last year. The Philippines has protested the "callous abandonment" of the 22 Filipino fishermen, who were left to float in the open sea for hours before they were rescued by a Vietnamese vessel. President Rodrigo Duterte called for sanctions against the Chinese crew during his bilateral meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in August 2019.

The Chinese Coast Guard did not issue statements to the media. But the PCG reported on Twitter that during a cross-deck visit, Zhongcai told Filipino officials on board CCG Vessel 5204 that Chinese President Xi Jinping "has high regard on cooperation and sincere diplomacy with the [Philippines] and CCG’s port call in Manila is a major initiative to achieving such goal towards peace, cooperation, and harmony between [the Philippines] and China."

The CCG is staying in the country until January 17. The goal is to set up new mechanisms of coordination, including establishing better communication lines between forces on patrol, and exploring how to de-escalate tensions in disputed waters.

Critics earlier questioned the supposed "red carpet treatment" for the Chinese Coast Guard in the country. The PCG has denied this, saying there's nothing irregular about the visit since it is covered by a 2016 memorandum of understanding between Manila and Beijing.

Meanwhile, in an apparent show of goodwill, the Chinese donated 600 pieces of N95 face masks and boxes of food packs for those affected by Taal Volcano's unrest.

Garcia said the Chinese crew members chipped in to help, since they are already on their way to Manila when news about Taal broke.

CNN Philippines' David Santos and Eimor Santos contributed to this report.