By Manny Mogato and Benjamin Kang Lim
MANILA/BEIJING, Feb 17 (Reuters) - The Philippines vice president said on Thursday China had declined to let him visit and seek clemency for three Filipinos set to be executed in China, signaling the sentences are likely to be carried out.
The two women and a man are expected to be executed in two southern Chinese cities next week for drug trafficking, and President Benigno Aquino had hoped to send Vice President Jejomar Binay to plead for their sentences to be commuted.
"I was told the Chinese government had relayed a message to our embassy in Beijing saying the time is not appropriate for me to go to China," Binay told a news conference on Thursday.
Binay said there was no explanation for Beijing's decision to turn down Manila's request for a high-level meeting to discuss drug-related cases of about 200 Filipinos in Chinese jails. About 70 have been sentenced to death but given two-year reprieves.
"We still have that feeling of optimism. There is still a possibility even if we are not there or I'm not there to make an appeal that the execution might not happen through our prayers. As long as the execution is not carried out, we remain hopeful and we will continue to pray."
The three would be the first Filipinos to be executed in China, and Beijing appears in no mood to compromise.
"This is an independent criminal issue," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a regular news briefing in Beijing. "China hopes the Philippines deals with this issue properly, taking the whole situation into account."
Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who is due to make a state visit to China in May, has written to his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao asking for the death sentences to be commuted.
"On humanitarian grounds and on the basis of the strong friendship between our two countries and peoples, I would like to appeal to your Excellency to grant clemency and commute the sentences of the three Filipinos," Aquino wrote in his letter to Hu, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.
China's response to the request will be a test of promised improved relations, Aquino said on Wednesday. ID:nSGE71F04R]
The Philippines has had relatively good relations with China over the years, despite competing claims over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Last year, relations were soured by the deaths of eight Hong Kong tourists in a bus hijacked by a sacked policeman, with China harshly criticising the way authorities handled the siege.
In December, Aquino said one reason Manila skipped the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was because he did not want to jeopardise efforts to save Filipinos sentenced to death in China for drug trafficking.
China has executed other foreign nationals for drug offences, including Japanese and Nigerians.
In 2009, China executed a Briton, also for drug smuggling, prompting a British outcry over what it said was the lack of any mental health assessment. (Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao in Beijing; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)