Full normalization of ties with China seen in Duterte visit

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Historic — this is how Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua describes the upcoming state visit of President Rodrigo Duterte to his country.

In a rare appearance at a media forum in Quezon City,  Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua gamely answered questions and at times even threw in jokes — in what could be a sign of warmer and engaging ties between the two countries.

Bilateral relations had been strained due to the maritime dispute in the West Philippine Sea but Zhao is hopeful this will be restored. He sees the visit, from October 18-21, as the beginning of a new chapter in RP-China relations.

He even calls as "stupid" allowing differences between the two countries get in the way of  renewing ties.

"The Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping is looking forward to meeting President Duterte to discuss the full normalization of our bilateral relationship and exchange views on common concerns.… We are  close neighbors, we are friends, we are partners, we are relatives," said Zhao.

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President Duterte has repeatedly stated he wants to set aside the sovereignty issue with China over islands and rocks that both countries claim.

But it seems Beijing isn't ready yet to tackle head on the West Philippine sea issue, including the ruling of the international arbitral tribunal in the Hague favoring Philippine claims in the disputed waters.

Zhao stressed, "This about friendship and cooperation.  We will  be focusing on things that unite us and that both sides will benefit from.  You know our position on  the arbitration so  I don't expect, and I don't hope issues that can be divisive will be picked up."

Zhao adds  though that China is willing to cooperate with the Philippines on common interests in the West Philippine Sea, as what happened during the Arroyo administration. This would include ensuring peace and stability in the disputed waters,  development of maritime resources and oil reserves, fighting pirates and maintaining freedom of navigation.

Asked if China would continue its expansion  in the West Philippine Sea where it had already constructed artificial islands in some areas, Zhao insisted his country's only plan  in the area was only to ensure peace and stability, and not cause tension and conflict.

"The South China sea is not something that is separating China and the Philippines. It serves as a bridge and links up the two nations and the two peoples. We hope that by working together we can turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and in particular, a sea of cooperation,"  Zhao said.

But Zhao did not directly address the question on whether  China would respond positively to a request that President Duterte might formally bring up during the state visit — to allow  Filipino fishermen  to fish in the Scarborough Shoal.

He only said Beijing is interested in developing a fisheries cooperation with the Philippines and contribute to the well-being of Filipino fishermen.