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Locsin, Wang hold first physical meeting in China since pandemic

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Saturday held their first physical bilateral meeting since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in China's southern province of Yunnan where they discussed pressing regional concerns and Beijing's commitment to supporting infrastructure projects under the Duterte Administration.

The statement released by the Department of Foreign Affairs did not mention the territorial disputes between the two countries as part of their discussions.

However, it said that Locsin and Wang "engaged in a candid and in-depth exchange on regional security concerns, as well as issues of mutual interest in the context of ASEAN-China relations in which the Philippines acts as China coordinator, as well as in broader multilateral fora."

It was Locsin's first official trip overseas since February 2020 before countries around the world imposed lockdowns and banned travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The meeting between the two top diplomats took place more than two weeks since President Rodrigo Duterte invoked before the United Nations General Assembly an international arbitration ruling that invalidated China's massive maritime claims.

For the first time since the Philippines won its case against China in 2016, Duterte, who has cultivated friendly ties with Beijing in exchange for Chines aid and investments, declared before the UN on September 23 that the ruling is "beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.”

China does not recognize the ruling, insisting on a so-called historical claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.

Months before the meeting, Locsin issued critical remarks on China's aggressive behavior and filed diplomatic protests for harassing Philippine vessels and for China's unilateral establishment of two administrative zones in the disputed South China Sea, calling it "illegal" and an infringement on Manila's sovereignty.

Locsin also warned China of a "severest response" if it conducts military exercises in Philippine territory in the South China Sea.

Manila also defended Vietnam against the Chinese coast guard's sinking of a Vietnamese vessel off the disputed waters, saying such a "provocative" act undermines regional peace and security.

The DFA said the bilateral meeting, held in Tengchong City, was aimed "to take stock of priority political and economic bilateral cooperation initiatives."

Locsin and Wang, the DFA said, "reaffirmed the continuing vitality of relations despite the constraints imposed by COVID-19, and pledged to forge ahead with sustained policy dialogues, as well as economic and infrastructure cooperation projects."

Wang, who invited Locsin to China from October 9 to 11, said the Chinese government is committed to supporting Duterte's infrastructure drive under his flagship Build Build Build program.

At the meeting’s close, Locsin and Wang said the Philippines and China are eyeing the establishment of a Fast Lane for Urgently Needed Personnel Exchanges "to facilitate, with due safeguards, the movement of essential official exchanges and travel by personnel in crucial industries such as business and trade, infrastructure, logistics, production, and technical services."  — DVM, GMA News