MANILA, Philippines –Philippine President Benigno Aquino travels to China this week on a mission to secure billions of dollars in trade deals, with both sides looking to rebuild goodwill amid a bruising territorial row.
Aquino’s five-day visit starting Tuesday is held against the backdrop of increasingly strident Philippine accusations of Chinese aggression and bullying in their dispute over competing claims to parts of the South China Sea.
Aquino’s aides said he would raise the sensitive issue in his meetings with China’s leaders, including President Hu Jintao, but his main focus would be on improving economic ties.
“The visit hopes to push for more trade, investment… it will also showcase the Philippines as an attractive and profitable business destination,” Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Cristina Ortega told reporters.
Ortega said the two sides were planning to sign during Aquino’s visit a five-year economic plan that would target $60 billion in trade in 2016, a six-fold increase from 2010.
She said one immediate contract may be sealed involving a Chinese car manufacturer investing at least $1.5 billion in the Philippines.
China, with an eye on the Philippines’ vast and mostly untapped natural resources, has also signalled it does not want the maritime tensions to derail a flourishing economic partnership.
“We’ll all try our best to make this trip very rewarding to both of our two countries and two peoples,” China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Liu Jianchao, told reporters in a briefing about Aquino’s visit.
“The Philippine economy is taking off and I have told the Philippine people that China is ready and willing to add power to the wings of the Philippine economy.”
China has scoured the world in recent years for all kinds of natural resources to fuel its fast-developing economy and provide the raw materials for its phenomenal manufacturing sector.
However, China has not clinched the kinds of multi-billion-dollar resource contracts with the Philippines that it has elsewhere – and Liu signalled Chinese firms were becoming increasingly hungry for Philippine natural riches.
“I think we do have great potential in the area of mining,” Liu said when asked what types of investments China was looking for in its fellow Asian country.
“I think that the mining companies, mining corporations of China and the mine owners of this country can have direct and efficient… negotiations for furthering their cooperation on mining.”
The Philippines has untapped mineral wealth estimated at more than $840 billion, with its copper, gold and chromate deposits among the biggest in the world, according to the US State Department’s country profile.
But mining is not expected to the sole, or even biggest, focus during Aquino’s trip, which will take him to Beijing, Shanghai and the eastern seaside city of Xiamen.
Philippine officials have said they will be seeking Chinese investment in a raft of infrastructure projects, from rail to roads, airports and schools.
There is also significant Philippine investment in China and Aquino is hoping his trip will deepen his country’s presence inside the world’s second-biggest economy.
In this light, Aquino will bring about 200 Filipino businesspeople with him.
And in an effort to attract more Chinese tourists, Aquino’s delegation will press China to declare 2013 “Visit the Philippines Year”.
Nevertheless, Aquino has also told the Philippine people he will not allow economic priorities to override his country’s claims to parts of the South China Sea.
China claims most of the South China Sea, even near the coasts of Southeast Asian countries, and the Philippines has accused Chinese forces of acts such as firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen in disputed waters this year.
“As far as our sovereignty is concerned, no one can claim our islands. We will not just back down from a larger country,” Aquino said this month.