|The Philippines is exploring for oil and gas on the Spratly Islands over which it shares rival claims with China [AFP]|
Benigno Aquino, the Philippines president, has launched his first official state visit to China with an open call to Chinese companies to boost investment in his country.
Speaking to officials and business executives at the Philippines-China economic and trade forum in Beijing on Wednesday, Aquino welcomed Chinese business and investment, particularly in the growing tourism, agriculture and infrastructure industries.
“In the past our commercial relations have been more beneficial to you, than to us,” Aquino said.
“Now, we have come here to balance the equation. Let me declare once again: the Philippines is indeed open for business.”
Aquino, who arrived on Tuesday, is leading 300 business leaders on a four-day trip, during which China and the Philippines are expected to agree on a five-year economic development plan to boost two-way trade six-fold to $60bn.
China is the Philippines’ third-biggest trade partner, with a multi-billion two-way trade volume: $27.7bn in 2010 – an increase of 35.1 per cent from 2009.
The Philippines’ oil and gas resources are highly attractive to resource-hungry China.
At Wednesday’s forum, Aquino guaranteed a “level playing field” and pledged to instill “a culture of transparency” in facilitating bilateral trade.
“The biggest change between the Philippines under my administration and under the previous government is a change in mindset,” he said.
“We will not take short cuts in order to close deals; we will follow the correct procedures.”
South China Sea tensions
The Philippine leader will meet his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao later on Wednesday, Premier Wen Jiabao on Thursday and business leaders in Shanghai on Friday.
Aquino will also visit the Great Wall near Beijing, and travel to Xiamen, the hometown of his ancestors, before leaving the country on Saturday
Tensions over rival claims to South China Sea islands are expected to be brought up in Aquino’s talks with Chinese officials, possibly becoming a hurdle to the Filipino leader’s economic aims for the trip.
The two countries reached a bitter agreement last month with other Southeast Asian nations, regarding overlapping claims to the Spratly Islands.
Early this year, Manila accused China of harassing its oil survey in the islands, while Beijing charged that recent construction work by Philippine troops on one of the islands violates the spirit of the agreement.
“It’s been a rough spring and summer on the South China Sea and the Philippines has certainly not been happy,” Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan reported from Beijing.
“The country has accused China of nine total intrusions into its territorial waters over the past six months.
“That also underscores the fact that a lot of this discussion is about money, about riches, about the natural resources underneath the South China Sea bed.”
Aquino said before the visit that both countries wanted to resolve the dispute peacefully, and that working through the conflict could lead to a stronger relationship.
“This is going to be interesting for this trip – whether the Filipino president decides to take a route of trying to focus on improving bilateral relations focusing on the positives, or whether he is going to assert himself and discuss the seriousness of the issues concerning the South China Seas,” Chan said.