BEIJING/MANILA - China on Thursday urged the Philippines to ensure the safety of its citizens ahead of planned anti-Chinese protests, as tensions mount over a territorial standoff in the resource-rich South China Sea.
A protest of about 1,000 people, organised for Friday in Manila by Philippine civil society and political groups, risks worsening strains over the disputed waters, thought to posses abundant oil and gas reserves and fishing stocks.
The two countries are engaged in a more than month-long confrontation that began when Manila sent a warship to check on Chinese fishing boats in the region, and escalated to involve four Chinese maritime surveillance ships.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the protest plans have "aroused the concern and strong reaction of the Chinese public at home and abroad."
"China is paying close attention to the safety of the Chinese people and institutions in the Philippines, and demands that the Philippines provide effective assurances for their safety," Hong told reporters at a regular press briefing.
Chinese travel agencies have suspended tourist packages to the Philippines and promised refunds to customers who have booked trips, Chinese state media reported Thursday, as tensions over disputed islands in the South China Sea escalated.
On Tuesday, China's embassy in Manila posted an advisory on its website asking its citizens to stay indoors, avoid demonstrations and refrain from confrontations with locals.
The protest organisers plan similar actions at China's embassies and consulates in the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy and other Asian capitals. Beijing has accused Manila of using the standoff to incite domestic opinion that has damaged Sino-Philippine relations.
Hong said Beijing would closely follow indications from the Philippine foreign minister that Manila would put forward a new proposal to ease friction over the disputed area, known as the Scarborough Shoal in English and Huangyan island in Chinese.
The dispute is one of myriad of conflicting claims over islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea that pit China against the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Tension has risen in the past two years over worries that China, in its economic and military expansion, is becoming more assertive in its claims.
On Thursday, China's state-run media continued an onslaught of angry commentary about the dispute, reflecting nationalist ire among many Chinese people who believe their country has exercised great restraint.
The Liberation Army Daily hinted that Beijing would not flinch from a military response if the conflict escalates.
"What we want to say is that anyone who tries in vain to seize sovereignty of Huangyan Island will be rebuffed by the Chinese government, Chinese people, and even more the Chinese military," a commentary in the military paper said.
The row threatens to disrupt trade and tourism between Beijing and Manila, with Chinese media reporting that companies, including Ctrip.com and Beijing International Travel Service, have halted tours to the Philippines and will not accept bookings until the tensions ease.
Chinese travellers are the fourth largest inbound tourism market for the Philippines, behind South Korea, the United States and Japan.
"The numbers are quite alarming because it (China) is a very important tourism market for the Philippines," said Philippine tourism undersecretary Victoria Jasmin.