Filipinos protest at China embassy over 'bullying'

Hundreds of Filipinos demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy in the Philippines on Friday over an escalating territorial row, with the protesters denouncing China's rulers as arrogant bullies.

Waving national flags, the protesters called for Chinese ships to pull away from a disputed shoal in the South China Sea where both nations have had ships stationed for more than a month in an effort to assert their sovereignty.

"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," said rally organiser Loida Nicholas Lewis.

During the peaceful, hour-long rally by about 300 people, the protesters carried placards that read: "China stop bullying the Philippines", "Make Peace Not War", and "China, Stop Poaching in Philippine Waters".

Organisers of the protest in Manila said similar rallies were planned at other Chinese embassies around the world on Friday, including in the United States and Canada.

The territorial row centres on Scarborough Shoal, a tiny rocky outcrop in the South China Sea about 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the Philippines' main island of Luzon.

The Philippines says the shoal is part of its territory because it falls within its exclusive economic zone.

But China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop huge oil and gas reserves, as its historical territory, even waters close to the coasts of other Asian countries.

The nearest major Chinese landmass to Scarborough Shoal is 1,200 kilometres northwest of the shoal, according to Filipino navy maps.

Editorials in newspapers controlled by the ruling Communist Party have repeatedly warned that China is prepared to go to war against the Philippines to end the stand-off.

Chinese authorities also this week ordered tour operators to suspend trips to the Philippines, in what Filipinos have widely interpreted as a form of economic blackmail.

Protesters at Friday's Manila rally said China's actions over Scarborough Shoal should send a worrying signal to other Asian countries about their giant neighbour.

"We just want the international community to understand that if, today, they can do it to the Philippines, they can also bully the other claimants too," said one of the co-organisers of the rally, Jackson Gan.

Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia also claim parts of the South China Sea.

The rival claims have for decades made the waters one of Asia's potential military flashpoints.

More than 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed in 1988 when China and Vietnam battled for control of the Spratlys, an archipelago south of Scarborough Shoal.

China's foreign ministry reacted angrily to the Manila protest, accusing the Philippine government of encouraging it.

"It is a wrong action that complicates and magnifies the situation," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing.

"We once again urge the Philippine side... not to take action that will escalate the situation."

Philippine President Benigno Aquino's spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, told reporters the government did not have a hand in organising the protest.

"It was a decision taken by private citizens who feel out of patriotism that they have to speak on the issue," Lacierda said, adding they were exercising their constitutional right to free expression and peaceful assembly.

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