China has asked Philippine President Benigno Aquino to postpone a visit next week for the opening of a trade fair, Manila said on Thursday, an unprecedented snub by Beijing as relations sour over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Claims by an increasingly powerful China over most of the sea have set it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines. Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts of the waters and China has a separate dispute with Japan in the East China Sea.
Manila has filed an arbitration case before the U.N. International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, questioning Beijing's claim as China deploys ships on two disputed shoals in the area.
"The president has decided not to proceed to the China-ASEAN Expo taking into consideration China's request for the president to visit China at a more conducive time," Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman Raul Hernandez said in a text message.
"On the part of the Philippines, we will continue to abide by our principled position that bilateral relations can advance despite differences."
The expo is an annual trade fair joining China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which the Philippines is a member.
China's Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared to take a swipe at the Philippines when he spoke to reporters after a meeting with Southeast Asian foreign ministers.
"As for the dispute of the Spratly Islands, they are not an issue between China and ASEAN," Wang said. "We do not believe that one individual opinion should replace the common position of all ASEAN countries, nor do we think that one individual (opinion) should compromise the overall interests of the two sides by pursuing their own selfish interests."
Hernandez told reporters China's request was conveyed to the Philippine government on Wednesday night, hours after Aquino announced his plan to make a 12-hour visit to Nanning on Sept. 3 for the expo.
Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo will represent the president in the Sept. 3-6 event, where the Philippines is this year's "country of honour", Hernandez added.