Travel agencies in a number of key Chinese cities have suspended services to the Philippines where anti-China protests were staged Friday amidst an increasingly tense standoff between the two nations over a disputed island in the South China Sea.
Tourist firms, including China’s biggest travel agency, China International Tour Service (CITS), have now stopped operations to the Philippines in Dalian, in northeastern Liaoning province, Guangzhou, in southeastern Guangdong province, and Shanghai, as well as a number of other cities.
Agence France Presse quoted an employee at the CITS Beijing branch as confirming the halt to travel.
"We stopped organizing for tourists to go to the Philippines because of the current situation," the employee said.
Another agency—Zhongtang International Travel Service—said it was currently "too dangerous" to send people to the Philippines, while a third company said tourism officials had asked them to stop their tours there.
The suspensions came amid a one-hour demonstration Friday by around 200 people in Manila protesting Chinese claims to sovereignty over the hotly disputed Scarborough Shoal, a tiny island which lies about 230 kilometers (140 miles) off the coast of the Philippines.
Gathered in front of the Chinese Embassy in Manila, the demonstrators waved Philippine flags and held up signs which read "Stop China's aggression now."
Beijing accused Philippines President Benigno Aquino’s government of encouraging the rally, but Manila denied the claims, saying that it had been organized by private citizens who felt the need to speak out on the issue out of a sense of patriotic duty. Some of the protesters have links to Aquino’s chief political advisor.
While the island, which China refers to as Huangyan and the Philippines calls Panatag Shoal, may not look like much on the surface, it is surrounded by rich fishing waters and is believed to sit atop a large cache of oil and natural gas.
The rights to these precious resources have led to a standoff between the two nations that originated on April 8 when Chinese merchant ships prevented a Philippines naval vessel from arresting a group of Chinese fishing boats that said they were taking shelter from rough seas near the island.
Both sides have since sent ships to the area, ratcheting up tensions on the water and leading to a diplomatic row that has stoked nationalism on both sides.
War of words
China said Tuesday that it is prepared for any “escalation” by the Philippines over the shoal after vice foreign minister Fu Ying summoned Alex Chua, the charge d’affaires of the Philippine Embassy in Beijing, to make a “serious representation” over the issue—the third meeting between the two sides in a month.
On Thursday, China told its citizens they were not safe in the Philippines ahead of the planned protests in Manila and the country’s state media has in recent days been publishing warnings of war in a series of increasingly sharp editorials.
On Thursday the official China Daily ran an article which suggested that a fight was brewing over the island.
“No matter how willing we are to discuss the issue, the current Philippine leadership is intent on pressing us into a corner where there is no other option left but the use of arms,” it said.
“Since ancient times, our nation has deemed war the last resort in handling state-to-state relations. But Manila is living in a fantasy world if it mistakes our forbearance for timidity.”
“This is a dangerous delusion. We have never been a trigger-happy nation. But nor have we ever been afraid to fight when necessary.”
The tone has been similar on state-controlled television, with one TV station sending a reporter out to one of the islets in the shoal, where he planted a Chinese flag.
According to a report by the official Xinhua news agency, the Philippines foreign ministry resumed diplomatic contact with the Chinese Embassy in Manila Friday “to ease tensions” over the dispute.
It quoted the Philippines as saying that its diplomats “are endeavoring to undertake a new diplomatic initiative, in the hopes of diffusing the situation,” although the report did not say what new approach the government had planned.
The Philippines says the shoal is located well within its internationally recognized exclusive economic zone, but Beijing has rejected a request by Manila to refer the issue to an international court, dismissing any claim by the Philippines to the island chain as “baseless.”
The South China Sea is home to potentially resource-rich island chains and some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It is the object of a number of competing territorial claims.
Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan have all laid claim to all or part of the disputed territories.
China has underlined its "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea, saying its claims stretch back at least to the 1930s, when official maps from Beijing contained the whole sea as Chinese territory.
Beijing’s current claims are based on a 2009 map showing a U-shaped dotted line extending from China and enclosing virtually the entire South China Sea while hugging the coastline of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.