BEIJING -- China warned its nationals against traveling to the Philippines, canceled tours and raised trade barriers on imported pineapples and bananas as the squabble over disputed fishing grounds in the South China Sea grew more intense.
At issue is a triangular-shaped cluster of reefs known as Scarborough Shoal about 130 miles from the Philippines’ Subic Bay. The Chinese call it Huangyan Island and complain that the Philippine navy has been harassing its fishing boats there.
In keeping with the prevailing jingoism, a Chinese journalist on Thursday posted a photograph of himself planting a Chinese flag on an outcropping of rock. An enthusiastic microblogger promised, “We’ll plant the flag all the way to Manila.’’
"We want to say that anyone's attempt to take away China's sovereignty over Huangyan Island will not be allowed by the Chinese government, people and armed forces," warned the PLA Daily, the newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army in an article Wednesday entitled, "Don't Attempt to Take Away Half an Inch of China's Territory."
Filipino activists have planned demonstrations Friday at Chinese embassies. As a result, Beijing issued a warning for Chinese citizens in Manila to stay indoors. In Beijing, Filipinos residing in China got a similar advisory from their embassy.
"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," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a news briefing in Beijing.
State media reported that travel agents throughout China had canceled tours to the Philippines. China officials also announced that inspections of imported bananas and pineapples from the Philippines would be increased because of aphids and other pests.
The dispute has been building since early last month, when a Philippine naval vessel chased away Chinese fishing boats.
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, China and North East Asia director in Beijing for the International Crisis Group, a think tank, said China’s more assertive behavior is related to a power struggle within the top leadership.
"It appears that the current internal jostling for power in Beijing is contributing to a more hard-line Chinese stand,’’ Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.
China’s claims in the South China Sea have caused tensions with Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia as well. Last year, however, Beijing adopted a more conciliatory stance out of concern it was driving its neighbors closer to the United States. The United States and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: A protester burns a Philippine flag and a U.S. flag during a demonstration outside the Philippines Consulate in Hong Kong on Thursday. Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated Press