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China and Philippines conflict escalates: Travel warnings, oil drilling

Jonathan LandrethThe Christian Science Monitor

China warned its citizens against travel to the Philippines on Friday, and Chinese tour groups halted visits to the South East Asian neighbor. There is fear of violence against Chinese tourists amid protests and rising tensions over a maritime territorial dispute.

The travel warning is the latest product of China-Philippines mistrust ignited last month when the Philippine Navy tried to detain Chinese fishermen in disputed waters, bringing a long-simmering territorial standoff close to a boil.

The tensions come as China started a deep sea drilling operation in waters off the Paracel Islands on Thursday, which are also claimed by the Philippines.

Analysts say the oil-rich waters around Scarborough Shoal and the Paracels are but one factor in the increasingly prickly relations between China and many of its neighbors.

“If you removed the oil from the equation, you’d still have conflict in the South China Sea because you’ve got a rising China that’s beginning to flex its muscles and doing so in areas where it’s easier to do it without risking provoking greater reaction from other major powers,” says Patrick Chovanec, an American professor studying business and regional security at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

The fishing boat incident on April 10 occurred in the sea around a triangular collection of small reefs, rocks, and islands about 150 miles off the Philippine coast and more than 500 miles from mainland China.

Known to international mariners as the Scarborough Shoal – named for a tea ship wreck that occurred there in the 18th century – Beijing calls the 58-square-mile outcropping Huangyan Island, while Manila calls it Panatag.

A series of tense diplomatic exchanges ensued and for weeks both governments refused to back down from their claims of sovereignty. Meanwhile, ships from both navies maneuvered in and out of waters around the shoal. Manila claimed that the United States would come to its defense if China attacked.

Heated rhetoric continued Thursday. “Peace will be a luxury if tensions continue to rise,” said an editorial in China’s English-language Global Times, a newspaper backed by the Communist Party’s flagship publication the People’s Daily.

China's travel warning

Chinese media warned of Philippine anti-China protests and told Chinese abroad to heed local laws and heighten safety precautions.

“The Philippines encourages citizens at home or abroad to launch anti-China protests. Such behavior attracts intense responses and attention to Chinese people at home and abroad. We hope the Philippines will not further damage our relations,” spokesman Hong Lei said, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

After a national warning from China’s National Tourism Administration, major Chinese travel companies such as Ctrip and Beijing Caissa International Travel Service on Friday halted tours to the Philippines citing heightened risk to clients on their microblog accounts. Other travel agents said customers were canceling travel on their own.

“Clients themselves have given up plans out of concern for their safety,” Guo Xiaopeng, marketing manager for Beijing-based BTG International Travel & Tours, said in a telephone interview. “We haven’t received any applications from clients wishing to go to [the] Philippines.”

China is the fourth-largest market for tourists to the Philippines, behind South Korea, the US, and Japan, government data show. Through May 8, there were 28 tour groups and 696 Chinese tourists in the Philippines. Data showed another 36 groups of 902 tourists had recently applied to go.

Complicating matters

Drawing further discomfort to a different area of what Beijing calls the South China Sea and Manila calls the West Philippine Sea, the China National Offshore Oil Company started a deep sea drilling operation in waters off the Paracel Islands this week.

Some analysts say the world should count itself lucky that China was choosing to row with the Philippines, rather than with other neighbors with whom a conflict could lead to grave consequences.

“The South China Sea pales in comparison with Asia's two most deadly flashpoints – Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula,” Brendan Taylor, head of the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at Australian National University, said in an editorial in The Australian newspaper on Friday.

Taylor cited a Brookings Institution projection that a conflict over Taiwan could spark a nuclear war involving 1.5 billion people, while a war on the Korean Peninsula would cost half a million lives and up to $1 trillion in the first 90 days. “It is difficult to envisage a credible scenario where a skirmish in the South China Sea could erupt into a conflict of such proportions,” he said.

Mr. Chovanec says to consider a parallel with Europe pre-World War I. Most Europeans, if asked in 1914 if they thought war was looming because of a dispute over Bosnian territory, would have laughed the notion off. “There are areas of conflict that seem to be peripheral but must be viewed and understood in a broader context,” Chovanec said. “China sees the South China Sea as a place where it can project power against some of the weaker links in the neighborhood.”

Still, not helping matters was China Central Television anchorwoman He Jia saying on Monday in a nationally televised broadcast, “We all know that the Philippines is China’s inherent territory and the Philippines belongs to Chinese sovereignty, this is an indisputable fact.”

Apparently, she’d meant to refer just to Huangyan Island. Her gaffe was quickly removed from the CCTV website but remains widely available elsewhere on the Chinese Internet.