Security was tightened in the Philippines capital on Friday ahead of anti-Chinese protests over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, with both Beijing and Taipei warning their citizens to be on guard for violence.
Some 1,000 people from civil society and political groups were expected to march to a Chinese consular office in Manila to protest against what they say are Chinese intrusions, as tensions increase in the long-standing territorial dispute.
The row in the South China Sea is potentially the biggest flashpoint for confrontation in Asia, and tensions have risen since the United States launched a policy “pivot” last year to reinforce its influence in the region.
“The United States’ 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,” said the Liberation Army Daily, the chief mouthpiece of China’s military.
The Philippines is one of Washington’s closest allies in the region. The South China Sea islands, believed to be rich in oil and other resources, are claimed wholly or in part by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Beijing has warned Chinese nationals in Manila to stay indoors, avoid demonstrations and refrain from confrontations with locals. It has urged Manila to ensure the safety of its citizens. Taiwan issued a similar warning to its nationals in Manila.
In Beijing, authorities stepped up security around the Philippines’ embassy, with squads of police waiting in streets near the mission and plainclothes guards also monitoring passers-by.
For China’s ruling Communist Party, which is heading toward an end-of-year leadership succession, the dispute with Manila can divert attention from recent energy-sapping scandals over sacked Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and blind dissident Chen Guangcheng.
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.
The Shanghai government-run website, eastday.com, 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 the Huangyan island, the Chinese name of Scarborough shoal, where the Philippine coast guard and Chinese civilian ships are engaged in a more than month-long staring match.
Besides Manila, organisers planned protests at China’s embassies and consulates in the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy and other Asian capitals. However no one showed up to a scheduled protest in Sydney.
Philippine officials said they expected the Manila rally to be peaceful.
More than 100 policemen were guarding the office tower housing the Chinese consular office, with hundreds more on standby to help with crowd control.