The Philippines and China pledged Monday to avoid “unilateral actions” that could further inflame tensions over rival claims to the potentially oil-rich Spratlys island chain.
Defence minister Voltaire Gazmin and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie made the commitment during a meeting in Manila, the two sides said in a statement.
“Both ministers recognised that unilateral action which could cause alarm should be avoided,” according to the joint statement issued after a closed door meeting.
“Both ministers acknowledge the need to ensure that the South China Sea remains stable.”
Philippine President Benigno Aquino also stressed the need to avoid conflict when he met with Liang later in the day, his spokesman Ricky Carandang said.
“Both sides went out of their way to be very cordial, very conciliatory,” Carandang told reporters.
The Spratlys is a chain of atolls and reefs straddling vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea and is believed to lie atop vast oil and gas deposits.
Apart from China and the Philippines, the islands are claimed in whole or in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
In March, the Philippines complained that Chinese patrol boats had harassed a Philippine oil exploration vessel in disputed waters near the Spratlys.
It subsequently filed a formal protest at the United Nations over China’s claims to the Spratly islands and adjacent South China Sea waters.
Last week, the Philippine military said it sighted two foreign jets flying over the area, which the local press, citing sources, said were Chinese.
But Gazmin said Monday that he did not know if the foreign fighter jets were Chinese, stressing that Philippine airplanes which had seen them could not properly identify their markings because they were too high.
Aquino brought up the two countries’ competing claims in the South China Sea in his talks with Liang but did not cite any of the recent incidents, Carandang said.
“The Chinese government said that they were happy that the Philippines had responded, not in a provocative manner, but had handled things in a very cool way,” he added.
“Both sides are eager to not let the irritants that have come up over the last several months become a thorn in the bilateral relations between the two countries,” said Carandang.