About 200 Filipino activists protested outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila on Tuesday, denouncing Beijing’s expansionist moves in the disputed South China Sea.
Police in riot gear guarded the embassy in the Makati financial district, but let the protesters march under Manila’s searing tropical heat. The demonstrators carried signs demanding “China out now,” and “China go away, the Philippines is ours,” among others.
A broad alliance of Filipino nationalists who took part in the demonstration called on President Rodrigo Duterte to protect the country’s territory amid a perceived Chinese territorial buildup in the sea region.
“We reaffirm the need to defend Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and territorial integrity against any and all foreign occupation and intervention,” the group, which calls itself the United Filipinos for Sovereignty, said.
The protest occurred as the Philippines marked its Day of Valor national holiday, which commemorates the fall of Bataan to Japanese soldiers on April 9, 1942, during World War II.
“We denounce in the strongest terms China’s unceasing efforts to undermine our legal victory in the West Philippine Sea as it continues to claim the entire area as its own,” the group said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea. “We oppose China’s illegal reclamation activities and militarization of the area.”
Among those picketing was Fernando Hicap, leader of a fishermen’s group called Pamalakaya, who criticized China for its alleged harassment of Filipinos venturing into the sea region to fish.
Chinese ships have continued to guard the lagoon inside the Scarborough Shoal, once considered a traditional rich fishing ground for Filipino fishermen, he said.
An international tribunal ruled in Manila’s favor when it took on the Scarborough case. Instead of enforcing the ruling, Duterte sought to build up closer Philippine ties with the Chinese and to distance the country from the United States, its traditional military ally.
“We reiterate our strong protest call that the West Philippine Sea is indisputably ours and China must respect our claim, and moreover, leave our territorial waters,” Hicap said.
“It’s been almost three years since we scored a victory in the international court, but the Filipino people have yet to regain possession of our resource-rich marine territory,” he said.
Beijing claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims to the maritime region.
“By imposing limitations to our fishers to exploit their traditional fishing waters, China is not only guilty of violating their socio-economic rights, it is also threatening our local food security as West Philippine Sea contributes 20 percent to the local fisheries production,” Hicap said.
Elections coming up
Faced with mounting pressure at home just a month before mid-term elections will determine the fate of his party in Congress, Duterte last week told China to stay away from Pag-asa Island, which Manila has held since the 1970s.
Duterte spoke shortly after the Philippine foreign affairs department had declared the presence of a large number of Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island as illegal and delivered a diplomatic protest to the Chinese Embassy in Manila.
The president’s statement against China was his strongest since taking office three years ago, according to analysts, and it came weeks before he was expected to attend a major business conference to be hosted by Beijing later this month.
The statement was seen by analysts as politically calculated and aimed at quelling rising public disenchantment with his government.
And despite Duterte’s warning to China over Pag-asa Island, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there were no plans to increase the deployment of troops there.
He did not disclose the actual number of troops stationed there, citing security reasons.
“We will maintain our normal presence in Pag-asa and in the other eight features that we own,” Lorenzana told reporters.
Chinese officials did not immediately comment on Tuesday’s protest.
Previously, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, had assured Manila that Beijing was verifying reports about the number of Chinese boats in Pag-asa, saying the vessels might be manned by unarmed fishermen.