China says in touch with Philippines about naval visit

Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of China's Foreign Ministry, speaks at a regular news conference, in Beijing, China, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Lee

BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Friday it was in touch with the Philippines about the possible visit of a Chinese naval ship to the country.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday he had invited China to send a battleship to visit.

His overtures toward a country long regarded by Manila as a maritime aggressor have marked an astonishing foreign policy shake-up, and Duterte made a landmark visit to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping last year.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that military exchanges between the two countries were an important part of their relations.

"Following the improvement in bilateral relations, China is willing to willing to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with the Philippines in the relevant area," Hua told a daily news briefing, when asked if the Chinese navy would visit.

"As for a Chinese naval ship visiting the Philippines, according to what I understand the relevant sides in both countries are currently in communication about this," she added, without elaborating.

Duterte's comments came amid concern in the Philippines that China would build several environmental monitoring stations in disputed waters, including on the Scarborough Shoal 124 miles off the Philippine coast.

China has dismissed that as "not true".

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Kim Coghill)