PRESIDENT Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping avoided any mention of the arbitral tribunal ruling on the South China Sea that favored the Philippines when they sat down for a bilateral meeting Thursday.

Instead, the two leaders agreed to settle disputes between their countries through “friendly consultations.” The meeting was held on the sidelines of the 29th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

“On the South China Sea, the two sides must stick to friendly consultation and handle differences and disputes properly,” Xi said in a statement issued by the Chinese embassy in Manila Friday.

“As two developing countries in Asia, China and the Philippines need to keep strategic independence, uphold peace, openness and inclusiveness, and stay the course of regional cooperation,” he said.

Manila and Beijing should work together “to reject unilateralism and acts of bullying, defend fairness and justice, and safeguard peace and stability in the region,” he added.

China asserts that most of the South China Sea is part of its maritime realm, while Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the strategic waterway.

The claimants have been holding bilateral and multilateral talks to sort out the maritime row.

The talks include the crafting of the Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.

Relations between Manila and Beijing were severely strained in 2016, when the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands, favored the Philippines’ petition challenging China’s assertion that it has historic rights over the South China Sea.

China has repeatedly ignored the court ruling, while the Philippines has maintained its stance to resolve the sea dispute through diplomatic engagement.

Since assuming the presidency, Marcos has repeatedly said he will uphold the arbitral tribunal decision, declaring that the Philippines will not lose even an inch of territory under his watch.

Last February, Marcos said he will seek the help of the Asean and the United Nations in resolving disputes in the South China Sea.

Last week, he pushed for the finalization of a COC on the South China Sea during the Asean Summit in Cambodia.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Friday said that Marcos and Xi have agreed to support the early establishment of the South China Sea COC “to help manage differences and regional tensions.”

During their meeting, Marcos and Xi agreed that the South China Sea issues “do not define the totality of Philippines-China relations,” the DFA said.

Marcos, who is scheduled for a state visit to China early next year, told Xi the Philippines is charting an independent foreign policy that “refuses to fall into the trap of a Cold War mindset.”

The President highlighted the need for enhanced economic and development partnerships, including agriculture, trade, infrastructure, energy, people-to-people ties, and pandemic response, the DFA said.

Marcos also thanked Xi for China’s donation of 20,000 tons of urea fertilizers.

He also said that Covid-19 response cooperation helped strengthen trust between the two countries. China was the first country to donate Covid-19 vaccines to the Philippines.

“Both leaders agreed to consider more infrastructure projects. President Xi cited the Davao-Samal bridge project in Davao as a prime example of an infrastructure partnership. He thanked President Marcos for personally attending the groundbreaking ceremony for the bridge project,” the DFA said.

Xi said China is willing to import more quality agricultural and sideline products from the Philippines.

According to Prof. Froilan Calilung, Marcos’ face to face with Xi further cements his policy that the Philippines will continue to be “an enemy to none” and maintain its good standing, amity, and cooperation with bigger and more powerful nations.

“I think what the President did, having a close discussion with China’s president, was a good move because this will benefit our economy to generate jobs, our fight against poverty, and give us a higher tax base,” Calilung said in Filipino during a briefing Friday.

“I think it is really, really a matter of how we are going to navigate, you know, our friendship with countries in order to pursue our national interest,” he added.

The meeting also puts the Philippines on the radar of other countries as a stable partner, Calilung said.

“Remember that our foreign policy is an extension of our domestic policy. And I think this cooperation that we’re having right now with China, and not only with China but even with the US (United States), with Asean, with APEC and other regional blocs in the world, I think it sends a strong message that the President really is not there to antagonize any country for as long as they are willing to support and adhere to our principles as well as a country,” he said.