Philippines says sea dispute not led to shift in ties with China or U.S.

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines’ territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea has not caused Manila to rebalance diplomatic ties with either its ally, the United States, or neighboring China, Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said on Wednesday.

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An arbitration court in the Hague infuriated China in July by ruling that China had no historical title over the South China Sea and that it had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights with various actions there.

“We want to make close friendship with China. It does not mean that we’ll weaken our friendship with the United States,” Yasay told Reuters during a break in a meeting of the senate foreign relations committee.

“We’re just saying that in spite of our disputes, as regards China on the South China Sea, there are other aspects of our relationship that can proceed without having to touch upon the South China Sea issue.”

On Tuesday evening, President Rodrigo Duterte said he expects talks with China over the maritime dispute within a year.

Duterte, who has been in office for seven weeks, said the Philippines will not raise the issues next month at a summit in Laos of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which the Chinese foreign ministry welcomed.

“We look forward to China and the Philippines conducting dialogue at an early date.” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Wednesday.

“We believe the two sides have the ability and the wisdom to appropriately discuss and resolve problems, promote the return of relations to a track of healthy development, and bring benefits to both countries’ people.

Speaking at an army base south of Manila on Wednesday, however, Duterte said he expected all ASEAN members to support the arbitration court’s ruling on the maritime dispute, regardless of whether the Philippines raised the matter at the summit.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea through which about $5 trillion worth of sea-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the sea believed to be rich in oil and gas.

China has made seven artificial islands in the disputed waters, three of them had airfields that can accommodate fighters, bombers and tankers to refuel aircraft.

At the senate hearing, Yasay said the United States will not allow China to reclaim Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop near its former US Navy base in the Philippines, because it will impede in the freedom of navigation.

In 2012, China seized Scarborough Shoal after a three-month standoff with the Philippines’ coast guard.

Additional Reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING; Writing by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore