China yesterday accused the Philippines of escalating an already tense territorial dispute over the South China Sea following a noisy but peaceful anti-Beijing protest in Manila.
About 200 protesters rallied in front of the Chinese consular office in Manila. Beijing and Taiwan had warned their nationals to stay indoors.
The demonstrators, carrying placards and banners and waving Philippine flags, protested against what they called Chinese intrusions into Philippine territory. The one-hour protest ended peacefully under the close watch of dozens of baton-wielding policemen.
“Encouraging the public to march and protest was a mistaken step by the Philippine side that has made the current situation more complicated and escalated it,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said.
A spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III denied government involvement in the protest although some of the organizers did have links to the president’s political allies, including his chief political adviser.
“It was the decision taken by private citizens who feel out of patriotism that they have to speak on the issue. Again, our constitution clearly protects freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly,” spokesman Edwin Lacierda told a press briefing yesterday.
The row over the South China Sea is potentially the biggest -flashpoint for confrontation in Asia, and tensions have risen since the US decided last year to reinforce its influence in the region.
The Liberation Army Daily, the chief mouthpiece of the people’s Liberation Army, criticized the US’ involvement.
“The US’ shift in strategic focus to the east and its entry into the South China Sea issue has provided the Philippines with room for strategic maneuver, and to a certain extent increased the Philippines’ chips to play against us, emboldening them to take a risky course,” it said.
For the Chinese Communist Party, which is heading toward an end-of-year change of leadership, the dispute with Manila could divert attention from recent scandals over sacked Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai (薄熙來) and blind dissident Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠).
Many Chinese, including military officers, have said popular anger could grow if Beijing remains too soft in responding to rival claims in the South China Sea. A hard approach to the dispute could underline a message of patriotic unity while serving as an antidote to domestic problems.
A Shanghai government-run Web site published a photograph on Thursday that it said showed a reporter from a local TV station planting the Chinese flag on the main reef of Huangyan Island (黃岩島), which is also claimed by Taiwan and is known in English as the Scarborough Shoal, where the Philippine Coast Guard and Chinese civilian ships are engaged in a standoff that has lasted more than one month.
In addition to Manila, organizers also planned protests at Chinese embassies and consulates in the US, Canada, Australia, Italy and other Asian capitals.