Protesters descended on the Chinese embassy in Manila on Tuesday to oppose the Asian superpower’s growing sway in the Philippines and as tensions rise over Beijing’s presence in the disputed South China Sea.
Filipino flag-waving marchers chanted “China out” and brandished a banner saying “Defend our sovereign rights”, referring to Beijing’s expansive claims to the resource-rich waterway.
“The government headed by President [Rodrigo] Duterte is not responding. What China is doing is almost an invasion,” marcher Alex Legaspi, a 53-year-old teacher, said.
While Duterte has largely set aside the once-heated territorial standoff over the sea, tensions have flared since more than 200 Chinese fishing boats appeared recently near the Manila-held Pag-asa (Thitu) island.
The Philippines called the boats’ presence “illegal” and Duterte threatened China with possible military action if it touches the island.
“The presence of Chinese vessels near and around Pag-asa and other maritime features in the [Kalayaan island group] is illegal,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement last Thursday, referring to Thitu island.
A day later, Duterte told China to “lay off” the island occupied by Manila in the disputed South China Sea, and said he would deploy his soldiers there if Beijing touches it.
Duterte said he was not giving a warning, but rather a word of advice to a friend.
“I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you to lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there. If you touch it, that’s a different story. I will tell the soldiers to ‘prepare for suicide mission’,” he said in a speech.
Previously, Duterte had repeatedly said he would not go to war with China because it would be suicide. He had said he has no intention of getting into a conflict with the rising power he has courted for trade and investment.
Duterte has been criticised at home as being too eager to grow ties with Beijing, and giving up too much leverage on the South China Sea issue.
The Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of $3.4 trillion every year.
Meanwhile, the US has moved to boost its relationship with the Philippines, its long-time ally and former colony.
Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines that it would come to its defence if it came under attack in the South China Sea.
On Tuesday, a small group of policemen monitored the protesters, who numbered around 1,000 according to journalists on the scene. The marchers dispersed peacefully after the demonstration.
Protesters also voiced simmering unease over the terms of Chinese loans for infrastructure in the Philippines, including a massive dam-building project.
China is poised to loan some $210 million towards the construction of the Kaliwa Dam, a project that has been delayed for years and would fill gaps in the Philippines’ chronic need for infrastructure.
“We cannot allow . . . China to control Filipinos and the Philippines’ sovereignty,” Wilma Quierrez, secretary-general of a Dumagat indigenous people rights group, said.
“The loan agreement signed by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and President Duterte will send us into debt trap,” she warned. THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK