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China's President Xi Jinping travels to the Philippines tomorrow following a week of public criticism between China and the United States. At a summit of Asian nations, Vice President Mike Pence accused China of intimidating smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific region. President Xi replied that China was a stabilizing force. As NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Manila, the Philippines sits in the center of this dispute.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, Sino-Philippine relations have significantly warmed. And President Xi's two-day state visit is a sign they could get much closer. Duterte has distanced himself from Washington - historically, a close ally - even as Beijing continues to put military installations on reefs in the South China Sea over which it claims sovereignty.
ANTONIO CARPIO: China wants to control the South China Sea for economic and military purposes.
MCCARTHY: That's Philippine's acting Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio. He says China is violating the law of the sea by monopolizing waters that are legally within the Philippine's exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from its coastline.
CARPIO: And it's only the Philippines that can get the oil, gas and fish there. But China says, no; since we owned it 2,000 years ago, we have a right to the fish there - to the oil, to the gas.
MCCARTHY: Carpio helped the Philippine government challenge China's claim to historic rights to the waters before an international tribunal in 2016. The court ruled in favor of the Philippines declaring that there are no historic rights. As China continues to flout the tribunal's ruling, its aggression in the disputed sea is damaging relations with at least five of its neighbors who also claim the waters. The United States is challenging China for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Three trillion dollars' worth of goods pass through it each year.
Justice Carpio says U.S. cruisers plying the area help the Philippines by telegraphing that these waters cannot unilaterally be restricted. But this past week, President Duterte sounded resigned to China seizing Philippine islands. China is there, he said. It's a reality. And America and everyone should realize it, he said. For the sake of economic relations, Duterte says he's put the tribunal ruling on the back burner, an approach political analyst Dindo Manhit says is a mistake.
DINDO MANHIT: We are a nation - maybe not too big, but we have - the rule-based international order is something that we can hang on. We cannot simply say, let's set aside these things and surrender our own territory.
MCCARTHY: President Donald Trump skipped both Asian nation summits this past week, leaving the way clear for China's Xi Jinping to steal the march on regional issues. Xi and Duterte are set to sign deals tomorrow totaling Chinese investment worth $9 billion in the Philippines. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Manila.
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