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An aerial view of China-occupied Subi Reef at Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea. REUTERS/Francis Malasig/Pool

(reuters_tickers)

By Benjamin Kang Lim

BEIJING (Reuters) - China and the Philippines will start bilateral consultations on the disputed South China Sea this week, the Philippine ambassador to Beijing said, as Manila looks to ease tensions with Asia's top economic power.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is visiting Beijing this weekend to attend a summit on China's new Silk Road plan, has opted to court China for its business and investment and avoid rows over sovereignty that dogged his predecessors.

Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Santa Romana told reporters late on Saturday that the consultations between the two countries would take place in a Chinese city, but declined to name it.

    He added that the dispute between the two countries "cannot be resolved overnight."

China has not publicly announced any such talks.

Duterte has been accused by critics of taking a defeatist position on China and on defending Philippine sovereignty. He considers his approach is pragmatic and says challenging China risks triggering a war.

Santa Romana said Duterte's attendance at the China summit should not be seen as the Philippines abandoning or "giving up" its claim of sovereignty in the South China Sea.

The previous Philippine government in 2013 filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to set the record straight on maritime boundaries. The tribunal did that last year, and invalidated China's claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

Duterte has put the ruling on the back burner and said he will revisit it later in his term.

Santa Romana defended Duterte's position, saying Manila was "proceeding from our own interests". 

China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

Duterte visited China last October for an ice-breaking trip after bilateral relations soured over the South China Sea under the previous Philippine administration of Benigno Aquino. 

    The detente has seen China commit to three infrastructure projects and pledge to donate two bridges, said the ambassador, without giving an investment figure.

    China has also eased import curbs on Philippine bananas, he said. 

    "If you go around Beijing right now and you go to the market, you will see ... Philippine bananas. The Chinese are eating Philippine bananas again and Philippine pineapples," Santa Romana said. 

    "They have promised to buy over $1 billion worth of tropical fruits from the Philippines and they are interested to buy more." 

(Reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Randy Fabi)

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Reuters