On a high-profile visit here after his spat with the US, the Philippines' mercurial President Rodrigo Duterte maintained a low-key stay here today ahead of his key meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping tomorrow to discus the SCS dispute and ways to forge close ties.
China rolled out a red carpet for Duterte when he arrived here last night, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi himself present at the airport to receive him saying that the visit is "historic" and that no "individual" or "foreign force" could stand in the way of rebuilding the friendship between China and the Philippines.
"Our arms are open and ready for friendship and cooperation," Wang said.
Beijing made no effort to conceal joy over Duterte's break with the US as Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying took a dig at Washington at a media briefing today, saying while people from China and the Philippines are happy about the visit "some people are anxious, upset and have mixed feelings about this".
Ahead of Xi-Duterte meeting tomorrow, Chinese officials have been speculating that as both China-Philippines cannot resolve the South China Sea dispute, the only way out is that it should remain a free passage especially for fishermen from both sides provided Manila does not press for implementing an international tribunal's ruling that struck down China's expansive claims over the area.
This was discussed when former president of the Philippines Fidel Ramos visited Hong Kong earlier and held talks with Chinese officials.
It is no cake walk for Duterte either, as the arbitration closely backed by the US and Japan was held over the petition filed by the Philippines.
Any concession from him on the vexed dispute will have a big fallout at home.
For Beijing, his visit was seen as coup of sorts and a turning point over its South China Sea troubles since the tribunal's ruling seriously dented its claims.
Besides the Philippines, China's claims over the South China Sea were contested by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
On the second day of his landmark visit here, Duterte - who caused ripples all over the world by abusing US President Barack Obama for criticism of his violent crackdown against drug smugglers - kept a low profile meeting Filipino expatriates in the evening.
An official with the Philippine delegation said Duterte had cancelled most of his events except for a dinner with Filipino expats.
In his interviews with the Chinese official media ahead of his visit, Duterte has reiterated his opposition to foreign interference in the South China Sea, warning that such unwelcome overtures would pose a great threat to regional stability.
"Even though countries like the US say all nations are by the Philippines' side, I say we are close to a third world war," Duterte said during an interview with CCTV on October 13. He believes that stubborn insistence on territorial claims does not help with economic development, state-run People's Daily reported. Though the South China Sea issue has dampened the two countries' relations, Duterte said he still has faith that China and the Philippines can "totally erase these dark spots", and added that he wants to establish a more cohesive and stronger bond with China. "In one word, I would say it is a defining moment of my presidency to open the frontiers of friendship and cooperation, and enhance (the) relationship between our two countries," he said. Discussing the balance of Manila's diplomatic ties with the US and China, he said his country "should not be too constrained (by) the dictates of any other country". He also stressed that China and the Philippines are neighbours, while the US is thousands of miles away. "I am not breaking away from the US - I just want to be friendly with everybody.
So you do not restrain me from doing (the same thing to) China. Why should we be afraid? Why should we stick to a certain country?" Duterte said. As for his expectations for his state visit to China, he said he hopes that better Sino-Philippines relations can benefit his country's sluggish domestic economy, adding that China is the only hope for his country's economy. According to some media reports, he evinced interest in buying Chinese weapons though China was guarded in its response to such statements. "China is willing to cooperate with the Philippines on drugs control and fight against drug crimes and terrorism," Hua said when asked whether China is willing to sell arms to Philippines.