THE PHILIPPINES’ relations with China are more than just their sea disputes, Defense Secretary Gilbert C. Teodoro said on Thursday, and asked Beijing to be “magnanimous” as they nurture trade and partnerships in other sectors.

“Relations between the two countries are not mono-dimensional. There are other relationships that we need to build up,” he told a Palace news briefing.

Mr. Teodoro said that the Philippines is still a “net importer” and China is a major export destination. 

“China is a big market for this country and we have realized that, and I think the United States realizes it too.”

China is the Philippines’ largest trade partner, with the two countries’ total trade amounting to $2.54 billion in February. Philippine exports to China hit $611.59 million in February, while its imports from the Asian “superpower” reached $1.93 billion.

Foreign policy experts have said boosting trade with China would unlikely temper its expansive activities in Philippine waters in the South China Sea, citing Manila’s relationship with Beijing under the former administration. 

Former President Rodrigo R. Duterte led a foreign policy pivot to China when he took office in 2016. He had been criticized for gambling Philippine territories to appease China in exchange for investment pledges that only few had materialized.

The Philippines’ relationship with China has become more complicated after a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship used a military-grade laser in February to harass a Philippine ship supporting a rotation and resupply mission of the Philippine Navy in the Second Thomas Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

Beijing said the CCG action was intended for navigational safety. 

A near-collision incident between a CCG ship and a Philippine patrol vessel carrying journalists was also reported last April 23.

Mr. Teodoro said that China, as a stronger country, has the “bigger obligation to be magnanimous and show trust, and to earn the trust of the Filipino people by conforming its activities to recognized norms of international law.”

He cited the 1980s United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China has invalidated, and the 2016 arbitral award that favored Manila in its territorial dispute with Beijing. 

“We are talking about the arbitral award. It has already been stated by our two past presidents that our rights and territory are defined by UNCLOS and it has been stated too that this cannot be frittered away or bargained away by passages of administration or passage of time,” Mr. Teodoro said.

“It is not only important to take into consideration what the specifics of the arbitral tribunal said, but the process by which it was done. It was done by an independent arbitral tribunal of experts in International Law, where had China participated, it would have had a chance to demonstrate its legal position in a fair and impartial proceeding,” he added. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza