Ahead of China visit, Philippine leader says no sense in war

October 17, 2016 6:17 AM EDT

President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a gathering of businessmen in Pasay city, Metro Manila, Philippines, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - There is no sense in going to war over the disputed South China Sea as talks are far better, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told China's official Xinhua news agency, praising China for not criticizing his country, unlike Western nations.

Duterte goes to China on Tuesday with at least 200 members of the Philippine business elite to pave the way for what he calls a new commercial alliance, amid deteriorating ties with longtime ally the United States.

On Sunday, Duterte said he would raise a controversial arbitral ruling on the South China Sea with China's leaders and vowed not to surrender any sovereignty or deviate from the July award by the tribunal in the Hague.

The ruling dealt a blow to China's extensive claims in the South China Sea. Beijing has refused to recognize the case and has chided any country telling it to abide by the ruling.

In the Xinhua interview published on Monday, Duterte said he wanted negotiation, not confrontation, over the South China Sea.

"There is no sense in going to war. There is no sense fighting over a body of water," Duterte said.

In Brunei, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said the South China Sea issue was not the sum total of the relationship between China and the Philippines, but the time was not yet right to discuss resolving it.

"We still have to build up the lost trust and confidence that was weakened or eroded during the past administration," Yasay told reporters.

"But then we should not also miss out on the opportunities for trade and economic relationship that we would need as much as China."

Duterte also expressed gratitude to China for not criticizing his war on drugs, which has sparked concerns in Western capitals about extrajudicial killings, with Philippine police saying it has killed nearly 2,300 people.

"China never criticizes," Duterte said in the Xinhua interview. "They help us quietly."

The unpredictable president's moves to engage China, just a few months after the arbitral award sparked fears in the region of a backlash by Beijing in the South China Sea, mark a striking reversal in Philippine foreign policy since he took office on June 30.

Duterte told Xinhua his grandfather is Chinese.

"It's only China (that) can help us."

China's Foreign Ministry earlier sought to downplay Duterte's Sunday remarks on the arbitration.

Asked about his comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Duterte would make his policy in the best interests of his country and people.

"China's door has always been open to the Philippines, and I think you've also noticed that President Duterte has many times said he wants dialogue with China," she added.

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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