The honeymoon between the Philippines and China appears to have hit a stumbling block. Last week, China’s Commerce minister abruptly cancelled a trip to Manila at the last minute. Scheduling conflicts, according to Beijing, but, as we hear from Neal Conan in the Pacific News Minute, it followed rare public criticism of Chinese militarization in the South China Sea.
Not just rare; astonishing. Consider the context - a regular meeting of Foreign Ministers from ASEAN, the big regional group of South East Asian Nations. It was Manila’s turn to host. As usual, Chinese allies Laos and Cambodia ensured that nothing remotely critical of Beijing could be found in the bland official statement. Then, as host, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay Junior held a news conference where he declared that the entire group had “great concerns” about what he called China’s “very unsettling” moves in the South China Sea, and he spoke about Scarborough Shoal in particular. China’s already constructed seven artificial islands in the South China Sea. An eighth atop Scarborough Shoal would be, Yaysay said, a “very serious, provocative act…a game changer.”
But Minister Yaysay then went on to say that China would never build on Scarborough shoal, because Chinese President Xi Jinping promised not to when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing last fall. This was news. Neither side has previously said anything about those discussions.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters that Yaysay’s remarks appeared to contradict agreements reached during Duterte’s visit and described his comments overall as “baffling and regrettable.”
Before he discovered his scheduling conflicts, Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng was supposed to witness the signing of new trade agreements reached during President Duterte’s trip.