Manila (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Hundreds of Filipinos demonstrated in front of the Chinese Embassy, marking an escalation in the dispute between Manila and Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea, in particular the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan forper Beijing), a group of reefs located between Luzon Island and Zhongsha Islands in the Pacific. The Filipino government distanced itself from the protest, stressing it was not involved.
The peaceful protest in the Filipino capital comes after Chinese tours to the Philippines were suspended and Filipino food imports, especially fruit, stopped. Chinese consular officials warned Chinese nationals living in the Philippines to stay indoors to avoid putting their safety at risk.
Waving placards and Filipino flags, demonstrators denounced China's rulers as "arrogant" bullies. "Our protest is directed at the overbearing actions and stance of the government in Beijing, which behaves like an arrogant overlord, even in the homes of its neighbours," rally organiser Loida Nicholas Lewis said.
The protesters carried placards that read: "China stop bullying the Philippines", "Make Peace Not War", and "China, Stop Poaching in Philippine Waters".
Filipino authorities beefed up security around the Chinese Embassy, deploying a hundred agents. No incident has yet been reported.
After two weeks of silence, Filipino and Chinese officials are talking again but the atmosphere is tense, especially on the Chinese side.
A Xinhua news agency commentary said Chinese people "were enraged by the offensive behaviour of the Philippines" over the issue.
India is becoming concerned about the conflict. New Delhi is increasingly interested in the Asia-Pacific region, and has called on both Manila and Beijing to show moderation.
"Maintenance of peace and security in the region is of vital interest to the international community," a spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs said. "India urges both countries to exercise restraint and resolve the issue diplomatically according to principles of international law."
The confrontation between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea accelerated on 8 April when Filipino Navy ships tried to stop Chinese fishing boats that had crossed into the disputed areas. In response, China sent naval vessels to protect the boats and China's national "interests".
Since then, tensions have been running high and diplomatic efforts by the international community to reduce them have failed.
Among all the nations in the Asia-Pacific region involved in the dispute, China has the most extensive claims in the South China Sea. Regional hegemony would provide it a major strategic advantage in terms of trade and access to oil and natural gas.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are opposed to China's expansionism, and can rely on the support of the United States, which has major strategic interests in the area of its own.
In recent months, the region has seen various incidents involving Navy ships and fishing boats from countries like China, Vietnam and the Philippines, each vying for access to the same rich fishing grounds.