Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino returned to Manila yesterday without meeting Chinese President Hu Jintao for much-anticipated bilateral talks that would have included their countries' territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Aquino attended the 20th Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum and leaders' summit on Russkiy Island, off the Russian far eastern port city of Vladivostok during the weekend. His plane landed in Manila at 5:35pm, 40 minutes early because of a tail wind.
In a five-minute arrival speech, the President said the Apec goals-make regional investments and trade strategies productive, the supply chains continuous and financial systems able to withstand crisis-remaind on track.
Speaking in Filipino, Aquino reported his meetings with the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Chile.
"We have successfully imparted the new face of the Philippines: more open to business opportunities, fairer to those who are ready to invest and a lucrative centre of commerce and trade not just in the Asia-Pacific but in the whole world," he said.
Aquino and Hu had been expected to meet on Sunday before the close of the Apec leaders' summit.
Question of time
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Saturday said that the format for the meeting had been "finalised" and only the time for the two leaders to sit down for the talks remained to be worked out.
Sunday came, the summit wrapped up its business, and the host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, said goodbye to 20 other Asia-Pacific leaders, but Hu remained scarce.
"It just came to a scheduling challenge, but as you can see the scheduling challenge turned out to be a bigger challenge than we anticipated," Del Rosario said.
Aquino's aides had said beforehand that a meeting with Hu was his top priority for the summit.
China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the West Philippine Sea, which is believed to hold vast amounts of oil and gas, is a rich fishing ground, and is home to shipping lanes vital to global trade.
But the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, some claims overlapping, and Manila and Hanoi accuse Beijing of a campaign of intimidation.
Tensions between the Philippines and China have been particularly pronounced, rising dramatically in April when vessels from the two countries faced off with each other at Panatag Shoal (Scarbourough Shoal), a rich fishing ground within Manila's 370-kilometre exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines stepped back from the standoff in June due to stormy weather, but Aquino said he would order government vessels to return to the shoal unless the Chinese cleared out.
Chinese ships are reportedly still at Panatag Shoal.
Aquino and Hu had been expected to touch on the dispute during their talks, and Del Rosario tried one more time to secure a meeting before the 1pm (3pm Manila time) close of the summit but the Chinese leader's schedules, which included a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper Sunday morning, was loaded.
"Our schedules just didn't jibe with each other," Del Rosario said.
"We saw each other earlier, but we didn't have the chance to talk," Aquino told reporters on Saturday night. "The [leaders'] retreat [on Saturday] had already started before we saw each other. I didn't see him actually at the cocktails before we had dinner. I think he was also busy with his own bilateral meetings," he said.
The President met Chilean President Sebastian Pi?era Echenique and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang on Sunday.
Del Rosario said the president was disappointed. "I think that a lot could have been achieved in terms of a meeting between the leaders for them to be able to share the various points of view and I think that this probably is not only a downside for the Philippines but also for China. I think this is obviously a missed opportunity," Del Rosario said.
The failure of the Aquino-Hu talks contrasted with discussions the Chinese leader had with the leader of Vietnam, which a Chinese government spokesperson described as friendly.
Hu also met with the sultan of Brunei, which is less vocal in asserting its claims, and the representative of Taiwan.
In a briefing for the press Saturday night, Aquino said he planned to have a "frank exchange of thoughts" with Hu to "divorce the talks from diplomatic niceties".
The president's last meeting with Hu was during his state visit to China in August last year. Since then, their exchanges have been coursed through Philippine and Chinese ambassadors.
"I can't say it's a warmed-up relationship, but at least it's less cold than what it was," Aquino said.
He said he would rather agree to disagree on things that divided the two countries, specifically the West Philippine Sea dispute, while moving forward on more negotiable matters.
He also said that bringing up the territorial dispute to the United Nations could be more risky than it looked.
"I was told by all the lawyers I talked with that once we enter into litigation, we can win but we can also lose," Aquino said.
The president said some Apec leaders offered advice that no political leader in his right mind would abandon something that his predecessors had claimed as theirs.
"Nobody can give up their sovereignty just like that," Aquino said. "The political cost will not be bearable by whoever proposes it. If I gave up even one centimetre of our national territory, I'm sure there will be many who will impeach me."
Speaking at the airport after his arrival on Sunday, Aquino said the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam extended to the Philippines "warm support" on matters pertaining to the West Philippine Sea.
He said Chilean President Pi?era invited him to visit Chile for discussions of investments in aquaculture and mining, exchange of geothermal energy technology, and deployment to Chile of Filipino teachers of English.
Aquino said the international community was abuzz with talk that "the Philippines is now very different, more developed than others."
He said Filipinos should be ready to contribute to increasing globalisation by reconsidering the country's economic barriers that might hamper further development.
With a report from AFP
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