MANILA • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said yesterday that he was not sure why China's commerce minister had cancelled a trip to his country, and that Beijing had misunderstood his foreign minister's comments about its militarisation in the South China Sea.
Mr Duterte said that he wanted solid ties with China and that there was no urgency in pressing it to abide by last year's arbitration ruling on the Philippines' maritime boundaries and sovereign rights, which went in favour of Manila and infuriated Beijing.
On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, speaking as the chairman of a meeting of Asean foreign ministers, said Asean members had "grave concerns" about China putting weapons installations on its man-made islands in the disputed Spratlys.
"The problem is I think Secretary Yasay was misunderstood by the Chinese government," Mr Duterte said in a speech. "I would like to assure China, and this is what I had committed to do when I was there, that we will talk as friends," he said, referring to a trip that he made to China last year.
Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng decided at the last minute to postpone an official trip on Thursday to the Philippines to sign agreements involving about 40 joint projects worth billions of dollars. No reason was given by either side.
TALKING ON FRIENDLY TERMS
The problem is I think Secretary Yasay was misunderstood by the Chinese government... I would like to assure China, and this is what I had committed to do when I was there, that we will talk as friends.
PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE, on the reference to concerns among Asean members over the Spratlys.
However, yesterday, China announced it had appointed a new commerce minister as part of a reshuffle ahead of a crucial Communist Party meeting later this year. It was not clear if this was the reason for the trip's cancellation.
Mr Zhong Shan, currently a vice-commerce minister, was named as new head of the ministry, said the Ministry of Commerce on its website.
Mr Duterte's comments come as new satellite images show the Chinese military shoring up its defences on an island chain in the South China Sea, adding what appears to be reinforced launch sites for surface-to-air missiles on at least three atolls. Photos of the nearly completed structures were obtained by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The images show at least eight structures on three of China's man-made atolls in the Spratly Islands: Fiery Cross, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef.
A United States defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said on Wednesday that the buildings have retractable roofs, making them suitable launching points for medium- to long-range surface-to-air missile systems.
According to a photo analysis by CSIS, the buildings are large enough to store China's HQ-9 missile system. The HQ-9 closely resembles Russia's S-300, a surface-to-air missile system with a range of around 150km and the ability to hit targets flying at an altitude of nearly 27km.
It is unclear, however, whether the actual HQ-9 launchers have been deployed to the Spratlys, as one of the benefits of the new launch structures is the ability to conceal them from reconnaissance flights and satellites.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST