Beijing, Manila protests over shoal
Raissa Robles in Manila and Teddy Ng
Around 300 people staged a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Manila yesterday over an escalating territorial row in the South China Sea, a much smaller turnout than expected. In a counter-demonstration in Beijing, a small band of protesters rallied outside the Philippine embassy.
Beijing criticised the Philippine government for the rally in Manila, saying it was raising tensions over the dispute by organising demonstrations. 'The Philippines instigated its people to take part in a protest targeted at China, which is a wrong step that will complicate the dispute,' said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei. 'We hope the Philippines could take concrete action and respect China's territorial sovereignty, and refrain from taking actions that would escalate tensions.'
However, Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the 'government has no hand' in the protest and that it was organised by private citizens.
Protesters said they were trying to raise awareness of the dispute and accused China of bullying tactics.
'We would like to internationalise this issue. We remind China that it cannot continue to use gunboat diplomacy,' said Marie Chris Cabreros, acting president of the Akbayan political party.
She stressed that the rally was directed against the Chinese government and 'is not a demonstration against the Chinese people'.
The territorial row centres on Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island in China and Panatag Shoal in the Philippines, where there has been a month-long standoff between 11 Chinese ships and seven Philippine vessels, with both countries asserting their sovereignty.
The demonstrators carried placards that said, 'Make peace not war' and 'China stop bullying the Philippines'. A protester tried at one point to burn a Chinese flag but police stopped him doing so.
John Montoya, a senior sales executive of a firm housed in the same building as the Chinese embassy, said Scarborough belonged to Filipinos.
'I believe we're right. We should insist on our rights,' he told the South China Morning Post. 'But I don't believe we should go to war. I think it can be settled diplomatically.'
Thirteen-year-old Kenneth Aawitin, who accompanied his mother, told the South China Morning Post: 'I believe Scarborough Shoal belongs to the Philippines. If you compare, it's nearer to us than to China.'
Scarborough is 230 kilometres away from the Philippines' main island of Luzon and 1,200 kilometres away from the nearest major Chinese land mass, according to Philippine navy maps.
China, however, claims large swathes of the South China Sea.
As well as the much smaller turnout - organisers had hoped for up to 1,000 - no prominent personality showed up other than Solita Monsod, a popular newspaper columnist and former economic planning minister.
She said Filipinos should ask China to 'back off' and compared the current Scarborough stand-off with the biblical story of David and Goliath. Protest organiser Liza Soriano said similar rallies were planned at other Chinese embassies around the world yesterday, including in the US and Canada.
In Beijing, small groups of Chinese protesters gathered outside the Philippine embassy. Two protesters carried a red banner bearing the message: 'We have had enough'.
One of the protesters said they hoped the Philippines would recognise China's sovereignty in Scarborough Shoal. 'We are all retired soldiers. If the nation needed us, we would go to the front line.'
With rhetoric between the two countries heightening, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged restraint and said the US supported 'any kind of collaborative, diplomatic process by the claimants to resolve the disputes without any kind of coercion'.
After Chinese travel agencies suspended tours to the Philippines, Philippine budget airline Cebu Pacific announced it would suspend a twice-weekly charter service between Shangahi and Clark, north of Manila, after a charter company in China cancelled bookings.