09/15/2004, 00.00
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Convergence between Manila and Beijing over Spratly Islands

Manila (AsiaNews/AFP) – Filipino President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo announced closer economic and military cooperation between Manila and Beijing in the area of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. "We hope," the President said, "to transform the South China Sea from an area of conflict to an area of co-operation".

China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam –all more or less equally distant from the archipelago– claim sovereignty over the Islands. Except for Brunei, they have all sent military personnel to the area.

Last week President Arroyo announced a three-year plan that would see the Philippines and China map the Islands' oilfields. "President Hu [Jintao] said that our ties can become even closer if we now begin to undertake defence co-operation," Ms Arroyo said. "He asked me to instruct my secretary of defence to go to China to pursue this new phase of our relationship," she added.

President Arroyo's announcement represents a U-turn in the relationship between the two countries. In the past, Manila frequently accused Beijing of financing the Communist Party of the Philippines and arming its military wing, the New People's Army.

After coming to power in 2001, Ms Arroyo showed little interest in negotiating with local Communist rebels. She said that "communism evolves. China is now, I think, more appropriately called a socialist market economy."

She also expressed her belief that Washington would not frown on Manila's closer relations with Beijing.

Vietnam reacted angrily to the Sino-Filipino rapprochement. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Dung accused China and the Philippines of "signing agreements [. . .] without any consultation with the other parties involved in the Spratlys," he said.

Filipino Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo responded by saying that other parties will be brought to the discussion table.

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