BEIJING Relations between China and the Philippines are at a turning point, a top Chinese diplomat has told a visiting Philippine delegation, adding that China hopes the Philippines can handle disputes "appropriately" and get relations back on track.
The remarks by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin come as two countries at odds over sovereignty in the South China Sea try to sound each other out, and set parameters for dialogue on an issue in which both have vowed not to give way.
The mid-level visit was the latest part of some carefully calibrated engagement after a July ruling by an arbitration panel in The Hague that overwhelmingly favoured the Philippines in its dispute with China over the South China Sea, invalidating China's claim to most of the waters.
China has declined to recognise the ruling while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly said he wants peace with China, but will not make concessions on any part of the tribunal's conclusion.
Liu said their bilateral relations had "sunk to a low edge for reasons everyone knows", China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued late on Tuesday.
"At present, China-Philippine relations are at a new turning point," it quoted Liu saying, adding that China hoped the Philippines "can meet China halfway, appropriately handle disputes and push relations back onto the track of dialogue, consultation and friendly cooperation".
China's bid to improve relations with the Philippines comes amid uncertainty, and acrimony, over the normally tight relations between the Philippines and its main ally, the United States, as Duterte shows little sign of dialling down rhetoric fiercely critical of Washington.
That tension, following U.S. concern about a bloody Philippine campaign against drugs, has created some speculation that Duterte's resentment about what he sees as colonial-era American interference, plus the prospect of luring big-ticket Chinese investment, could nudge Manila closer to Beijing.
Duterte has, however, insisted he wants solid ties with both powers, and subservience to no country.
U.S. President Barack Obama cancelled a meeting with Duterte at an Asian leaders' summit in Laos last week after a televised outburst by the Philippine leader.
Though that has caused jitters in Washington, Duterte's softer tone towards China was not a cause for concern, according to some U.S. officials.
Speaking in Laos, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes suggested Philippine engagement with China suited the United States and would be seen as "a constructive development" if it resulted in peaceful problem-solving and followed international law.
China's influential Global Times tabloid noted last week that despite the acrimony between Obama and Duterte, China should "not hold too many illusions" about U.S.-Philippine relations.
Referring to Duterte, the newspaper said that long term, it "will not necessarily be easy to deal with the Philippines under his rule".
The 16-member Philippine delegation in China is comprised mostly of retired diplomats and is led by Rafael Alunan, a trusted associate of former President Fidel Ramos.
Duterte has picked Ramos as his point-man for patching up ties with China, which were tested again last week when the Philippines published images of what it said were new Chinese vessels at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Manuel Mogato; Editing by Robert Birsel)