MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Benigno Aquino III canceled a trip to a Chinese trade fair after Beijing demanded that he first withdraw a legal complaint over disputed territories in the South China Sea, Filipino officials said Monday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and two other diplomats relayed conditions for Aquino to attend the annual China-ASEAN Expo, which opens Tuesday in the southern city of Nanning, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told a news conference.
Hernandez declined to detail the conditions, but said these were “absolutely inimical to our national interest.” The Chinese side asked that the conditions not be publicly disclosed, he said. They were discussed by Wang and Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in Beijing on Wednesday.
Because of the conditions, Aquino decided to call off his publicly announced trip to the trade fair, Hernandez said, adding the Philippines will instead send a delegation headed by its trade secretary.
“The president stood firm in the defense of the country’s national interest,” Hernandez said.
Two Philippine officials told The Associated Press that China wanted Manila to withdraw a U.N. arbitration case over disputed islands in the South China Sea. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Chinese officials have also cited a new standoff between China and the Philippines over the Second Thomas Shoal, which is called Ayungin Shoal by Filipinos and Ren’ai Reef by the Chinese, the Philippine officials said.
China has asked Manila to remove a navy ship that ran aground on the shoal years ago, but the Philippine officials said the area was well within their territorial waters.
China was concerned that allowing Aquino to visit after the Philippines brought its territorial disputes to U.N. arbitration in January — which Beijing calls an “unfriendly act” — may not be welcomed by the Chinese public and media, the officials said.
Asked to comment Monday, Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua did not react to their statements, but urged the Philippines to work with China “to overcome difficulties and disturbances and make real efforts to get the China-Philippine relationship” back on track.
He said China welcomes Southeast Asian delegations, including from the Philippines, to the trade expo.
The Philippines is this year’s “country of honor” at the trade fair, which takes place in China every year to highlight trade exchanges between Beijing and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The prime ministers of China allies Cambodia and Laos, along with those of Thailand and Vietnam have confirmed their attendance to the trade expo, which was first held in 2004 to promote the China-ASEAN free-trade area. Myanmar, another China ally, will send its vice president, Philippine officials said.
The Philippines and China have been embroiled in increasingly antagonistic territorial disputes. Last year, China seized a shoal near the northwestern coast of the Philippines, and this year it demanded that the Philippine navy withdraw from Second Thomas Shoal farther south.
The Philippines incensed China in January by challenging Beijing’s massive territorial claims in the strategic South China Sea before a U.N. arbitration tribunal, which has convened to look into Manila’s complaint despite China’s stance to ignore the move.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and its island groups on historical grounds. The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have rejected that, sparking fears the disputes might spark Asia’s next major armed conflict.
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.