China scraps minister’s visit to PH
China’s commerce minister decided at the last minute to postpone an official trip to the Philippines on Thursday to sign about 40 joint projects worth billions of dollars, Philippine officials said.
It was not immediately clear what was behind the abrupt postponement of what would have been an important development in a new era of engagement between the two historic rivals under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has praised the leadership of Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
However, two Philippine officials at the trade and finance departments, who asked not to be identified, suggested that Beijing may have been irked by the comments on Tuesday by Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay about China’s robust activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng was due to arrive in Manila on Thursday with a large delegation but China informed the Philippines on Wednesday afternoon they would not be coming, the two sources said.
“It was a last-minute decision,” said one of the officials. “We were only informed about it and we’re not privy to any information about the cancelation.”
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez told Reuters the two sides had yet to set a new date for the meeting but were looking at early March. He gave no reason for the sudden change.
“Dates moved only due to their internal meetings in China. Instead, it might be in the first week of March,” he said in a text message to the Inquirer.
Lopez squelched speculations that tension between the two countries had flared again following Yasay’s comments.
The trip was postponed “due to scheduling reasons,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing.
“The two sides are currently actively carrying out relevant preparation work,” Geng told a regular news briefing, adding that the pacts signed during Duterte’s visit were being carried forward and implemented.
China’s commerce ministry had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.
Yasay, as chair of a meeting of Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers, said on Tuesday that Asean was unsettled and had “grave concern” about China’s move to militarize manmade islands, including the installation of weapons systems, in the South China Sea.
Asean is usually muted in its criticism of Beijing, wary of offending a crucial source of trade, tourism and investment.
A Philippine trade official said Manila could only speculate about why Gao had postponed the visit, and that trade and economic relations were separate from political disputes over the South China Sea.
Geng said on Wednesday that Yasay’s comments were his own and did not represent the views of Asean. China hoped Yasay adhered to Duterte’s policy of seeking to improve ties with China, Geng said.
A Philippine delegation has submitted to Beijing a list of 40 small- and large-scale infrastructure projects for possible loans and grants. Chinese firms are also keen on investing in the agriculture, fisheries and energy sectors in the Philippines.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said in an earlier statement that a six-year development program for China-Philippines cooperation was due to be signed during Gao’s visit.
The deal stems from an agreement between Xi and Duterte in Beijing in October.
The finance ministry said 15 of the infrastructure projects submitted to China were loan financing, while 25 other projects were for feasibility study support. Three of the large-scale projects are worth $3.4 billion combined. —WITH A REPORT FROM ROY STEPHEN C. CANIVEL
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