Philippines stops protest trip to disputed shoal

Philippine President Benigno Aquino convinced protesters to abort plans to sail Friday to a disputed South China Sea shoal as he sought ways to resolve a tense stand-off with China.

A group of about 20 people, led by outspoken former Philippine Marine officer Nicanor Faeldon and including television crews, was all set to depart to Scarborough Shoal from the northern coastal town of Masinloc.

But Aquino placed a last-minute phone call to Faeldon, convincing him not to go, the president's spokeswoman Abigail Valte told reporters in Manila.

"The president did indeed speak to Mr. Faeldon and had asked him to reconsider his plan of going to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal because it might be construed in a negative way," Valte said.

China claims the shoal along with most of the South China Sea, even up to the coasts of its Asian neighbours, while the Philippines says the shoal is well within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

Cranking up tensions, both countries have had ships posted around the shoal since April 10, after Chinese vessels prevented a Philippine Navy ship from arresting Chinese fishermen.

China and the Philippines have since imposed separate fishing bans around the disputed area that came into effect on Wednesday, moves that were seen by some observers as a face-saving way for both to back away from the row.

Faeldon told reporters he spoke to the president on his mobile phone as the protesters were about to set sail for the trip, which would have taken nine hours each way.

"I consulted the group and we agreed to concur with the wisdom of the government to postpone it," he added.

Faeldon has served time in prison and was discharged from the Philippine Marines for a 2003 coup attempt, but was granted amnesty last year. He had planned to stay on the disputed shoal for three days.

There was also talk of hoisting a Philippine flag there -- a move likely to infuriate Beijing and ratchet up tensions -- but Faeldon later said the group would not commit any "provocative" actions.

Faeldon said the president told him Philippine government representatives were currently in China to negotiate over the maritime row.

"He said that he believed the postponement of this activity may do better for the resolution of this dispute."

Both Valte, the presidential spokeswoman, and foreign department spokesman Raul Hernandez however said they were unaware of any ongoing talks in China.

Aquino has named two special envoys to China to help improve ties, but the Aquino government would not say if they were already in Beijing.

Faeldon said earlier the trip aimed to galvanise global support for the Philippine government's efforts to bring a peaceful solution to the maritime stand-off with its giant neighbour.

The foreign department on Thursday said it did not want the trip to go ahead but Faeldon initially ignored the call, dismissing fears China would see it as provocative.

Scarborough Shoal sits about 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the Philippines' main island of Luzon. The nearest major Chinese landmass is 1,200 kilometres northwest of the shoal, according to Philippine navy maps.

Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said Thursday he expected "modest" economic fallout from the territorial dispute.

China had imposed stricter quarantine restrictions on key Filipino fruit exports, the Philippine government said, and warned its citizens about travel safety in the Philippines.

Philippine resorts have been hit with Chinese tourist cancellations, while a Chinese airline cut flight frequencies to Manila.

Valte said the Philippines is to send agriculture department officials to China next week to negotiate over the quarantine impasse.

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