Philippine president wants to attend Asean trade expo in China

Philippine president signals that he wants to attend an Asean trade expo in Nanning, indicating a desire to improve soured relations with Beijing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 4:36am

Philippine President Benigno Aquino says he wants to attend an Asean trade expo in China early next month - a possible overture to Beijing as he seeks to repair souring relations between the two countries.

However, Aquino has yet to confirm the trip to the China-Asean Expo in Nanning , Guangxi . It would be Aquino's second trip to China since becoming president; the first was in September 2011.

The move appears to leave the door open for Beijing to signal if Aquino would be welcome.

Ties between the two countries are at their lowest in years amid assertive efforts by Beijing to stake its claims in the South China Sea.

[Aquino] has signified his intention to attend … but it is not confirmed

Raul Hernandez, from the Department of Foreign Affairs, said they had a received an invitation from China to send "high-level" officials to the event.

"The president has signified his intention to attend … however, it is not confirmed yet that he will attend," Hernandez said.

Expo organisers could not confirm which state leaders would attend the event, being held on September 3-6.

"It's not something we can confirm so early. No one knows for sure until it gets closer to the event date," said an event spokesman.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said that Aquino was still awaiting a recommendation from the foreign affairs department. Lacierda was quoted by the Philippine Star newspaper as saying that if Aquino went, his agenda would be economic relations and not South China Sea disputes.

The Philippine government had apparently been keeping Aquino's possible trip to China under wraps, until a local news website, Vera Files, claimed that Aquino had accepted China's invitation and that Premier Li Keqiang would receive Aquino, along with envoys of other Asean nations.

However, Chinese analysts doubt that Beijing would invite Aquino personally. Nor do they believe that Beijing would use the occasion to arrange a meeting between Aquino and top leaders.

"The current environment is not good enough for such high-level diplomacy," said Du Jifeng , a Southeast Asian affairs expert at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Professor Zhuang Guotu , director of Xiamen University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, said both nations had almost frozen exchanges.

Amid a tense stand-off over Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island by China, Aquino sent Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas to last year's expo. Roxas held a 45-minute discussion there with then-vice-president Xi Jinping , in an attempt to resolve the territorial dispute peacefully. Roxas described the talks as deadlocked.

Reports of Aquino's possible visit came on the day that Philippine and US officials began talks on giving the US military wider and increased access in the Philippines - a move that would be closely watched by Beijing, which bristles at an increased US presence in the region.