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China's Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng attends a session during the 2016 G20 Trade Ministers Meeting in Shanghai, China July 10, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song

(reuters_tickers)

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) - China's commerce minister decided at the last minute to postpone an official trip to the Philippines on Thursday to sign about 40 joint projects worth billions of dollars, sources at the Philippines trade and finance ministries said.

It was not immediately clear what was behind the abrupt postponement of what would have been an important development in a new era of engagement between the two historic rivals under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has praised the leadership of Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

However, two Philippines officials, who asked not to be identified, suggested Beijing may have been irked by comments on Tuesday by foreign minister Perfecto Yasay about China's robust activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng was due to arrive in Manila on Thursday with a large delegation but China informed the Philippines on Wednesday afternoon they would not be coming, the two sources said.

"It was a last-minute decision," said one of the officials. "We were only informed about it and we're not privy to any information about the cancellation." Philippines Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez told Reuters the two sides had yet to set a new date for the meeting but were looking at early March. He gave no reason for the sudden change.

China's commerce ministry had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.

On Tuesday, Yasay said as chairman of a meeting of Association of South East Asian Nations foreign ministers that ASEAN was unsettled and had "grave concern" about China's move to militarise manmade islands, including installation of weapons systems, in the South China Sea.

ASEAN is usually muted in its criticism of Beijing, wary of offending a crucial source of trade, tourism and investment.

A Philippine trade official said Manila could only speculate about why Gao had postponed the visit, and that trade and economic relations were separate to political disputes over the South China Sea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday Yasay's comments were his own and did not represent the views of ASEAN. China hoped Yasay adhered to Duterte's policy of seeking to improve ties with China, Geng said.

A Philippine delegation has submitted to Beijing a list of 40 small- and large-scale infrastructure projects for possible loans and grants. Chinese firms are also keen to invest in the agriculture, fisheries and energy sectors in the Philippines.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said in an earlier statement a six-year development programme for China-Philippines cooperation was due to be signed during Gao's visit.

The deal stems from an agreement between Xi and Duterte in Beijing in October.

The finance ministry said 15 of the infrastructure projects submitted to China were loan financing, while 25 other projects were for feasibility study support. Three of the large-scale projects are worth $3.4 billion combined.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Additional reporting by Karen Lema in MANILA and Sue-Lin Wong and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Martin Petty and Paul Tait)

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Reuters