(AP) The Philippine government said Thursday that China has withdrawn an invitation to President Benigno Aquino III to visit a trade fair, an apparent snub as the two countries are locked in a territorial dispute.
A spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, Raul Hernandez, said in a statement that Aquino has decided not to go ahead with the daylong visit to the China-ASEAN Expo scheduled for Tuesday in Nanning.
"The president has decided not to proceed ... taking into consideration China's request for the president to visit China at a more conducive time," Hernandez said.
He added that the Philippines "will continue to abide by our principled position that bilateral relations can advance despite differences."
China's Foreign Ministry in Beijing did not immediately respond to request for comment from The Associated Press.
Hernandez said that China had invited the Philippines to send a high-level delegation to visit Nanning a few months ago.
Aquino on Wednesday told reporters he would go, adding: "You may be surprised, I will travel next week. It's quite a long trip to China. I will leave at 5 in the morning and will be back at 5 in the afternoon."
"I don't want to overstay our welcome there," he said.
According to Hernandez, China informed the Philippines late Wednesday that Aquino should not proceed with the trip.
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 Philippines and China have been embroiled in an increasingly antagonistic territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Last year, China seized a shoal near the northwestern coast of the Philippines, and this year demanded that the Philippine navy withdraw from Second Thomas Shoal father south.
The Philippines has further incensed China by seeking U.N. arbitration to solve the disputes.
Dwarfed by China's mammoth military, the Philippines also has started negotiations with Washington to allow a larger number of U.S. troops to have access to local military camps, where they could also pre-position ships, assault helicopters and high-tech surveillance aircraft like the P3 Orion in close proximity to the South China Sea.
China sought to use economic pressure to sway Manila, and in the latest sign of Beijing's growing assertiveness, recently reorganized its coast guard to beef up its ability to police its maritime claims.
The visit's cancellation was announced as China was hosting ASEAN foreign ministers ahead of talks in China next month on how to implement a 2002 agreement on peacefully handling disagreements.
Referring to the South China Sea territorial dispute, Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told reporters that ASEAN anticipated the September discussions would be "constructive and substantive."
ASEAN nations have been pushing for a code of conduct governing interactions in the area, but China has been reluctant to negotiate with the group as a whole, preferring to deal with nations bilaterally as a way of bringing its full size, economic influence, and political heft to bear on its much smaller neighbors.
China claims virtually the entirety of the 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 turn violent and set off an armed conflict.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China's reluctance to discuss territorial disputes with ASEAN as a bloc, while emphasizing the importance Beijing places on regional stability.
"We do not believe one individual position should replace that of ASEAN, and cannot let our own individual relations be affected by one's selfish interests," Wang said.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.