Chinese minister abruptly puts off trip to Manila

A file photo of Mr Gao Hucheng, China's minister of Commerce, speaking at the Boao Forum For Asia Annual Conference in Boao, China, on March 24, 2016.
A file photo of Mr Gao Hucheng, China's minister of Commerce, speaking at the Boao Forum For Asia Annual Conference in Boao, China, on March 24, 2016. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

China's Commerce Minister has postponed a trip to the Philippines at the eleventh hour, in what is possibly a signal of displeasure by Beijing at Manila's comments on Chinese activities in the disputed South China Sea.

Mr Gao Hucheng was due to arrive in Manila yesterday with a large delegation and was to sign about 40 joint projects worth billions of dollars, Reuters news agency quoted Philippine government sources as saying. However, on Wednesday afternoon, Beijing informed Manila that the trip was off, Reuters quoted the two sources as saying.

"It was a last-minute decision... we are not privy to any information about the cancellation," one of the officials was quoted as saying.

The two officials suggested Beijing may have been irked by comments that Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay made. Mr Yasay said on Tuesday that Asean found China's installation of weapons in disputed areas in the South China Sea "very unsettling".

He also commented on last July's arbitral tribunal ruling against China's claims - which Beijing rejected - saying it was Manila's contribution to jurisprudence which could be used by claimant states if they wanted to pursue a legal complaint against China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Wednesday said Mr Yasay's comments did not represent the view of Asean.

Yesterday, he told a regular press briefing that the postponement of Mr Gao's trip was due to "scheduling reasons". But he added that Mr Yasay's remarks were inconsistent with the healthy and rapid development of ties between both countries.

Sino-Philippine ties became strained over the South China Sea, but have been on the mend since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came to power last year. However, Manila has been anxious over signs that Beijing might be planning to reclaim land on Scarborough Shoal that both sides claim.

Philippine analyst Richard Heydarian said there was a possibility the postponement was an expression of displeasure over Mr Yasay's remarks.

Noting that Manila has been taking a stronger rhetorical position on the South China Sea lately, he said: "This is a not-so-subtle way of China saying that economic incentives could be jeopardised if the Philippines is not more careful about how it handles its chairmanship (of Asean)."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2017, with the headline 'Chinese minister abruptly puts off trip to Manila'. Print Edition | Subscribe