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Economic retaliation, public opinion, sharpening Beijing-Manila standoff over South China Sea
BEIJING (AP) ' The monthlong standoff between China and the Philippines over a remote South China Sea shoal is snowballing with hints of economic retaliation and sharpening public opinion on both sides ' possibly narrowing the space for a hoped-for negotiated settlement.
Beijing is suspending some tourism to the Philippines and ordered stiffened inspections on imported Philippine fruit such as bananas, of which China is the single largest buyer. That follows Beijing's summoning of Manila's charge d'affairs three times, while retired and serving military officers have called for a limited military operation to shore up China's credibility on the matter ' a potentially explosive move that could trigger the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty.
The Philippines has registered its own diplomatic protests, with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario cautioning foreign governments over what the Philippines perceives as China's looming threat to freedom of navigation.
Manila's Department of Foreign Affairs is preparing to bring the territorial rifts to international arbitration. The Philippines is also seeking to shore up its territorial claims with new warships, fighters jets and radars from the United States.
Actions by both nations are shrinking the room for maneuverability, but they are exacerbated by perceptions that Washington is backing what Chinese see as deliberate provocations by the Philippines, said Jonathan Holslag, a research fellow at the Institute for Contemporary China Studies at the University of Brussels.
"China can't give in, since that would be the same as backing down to American bullying," Holslag said.
China and the Philippines are among six claimants to waters and island groups in the South China Sea, which has heavily traveled maritime lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of mineral resources.
The latest confrontation between Beijing and Manila began April 10 when the Philippine navy accused Chinese boats of fishing illegally around Scarborough Shoal, which Manila claims as part of its exclusive economic zone, but which Beijing insists has been Chinese for centuries.
Beijing's moves on tourism and fruit imports are a variation of unacknowledged economic pressure employed in past international disputes.
China International Travel Service, one of the country's largest, said it was suspending trips from Thursday based on safety considerations. Nationwide online agency Ctrip.com has also suspended trips, an agent said, citing "anti-China sentiments in that country right now." She said the company acted on its own without official orders.
The Shanghai Tourism Bureau had also ordered a suspension, according to staff with the Yiyou and Guojikuaixian travel agencies in the eastern financial hub.
None of the agents would give their names because of the sensitivity of the matter. Calls to China's national tourism administration rang unanswered Thursday.
The suspensions come as China's embassy in Manila issued a safety warning to its nationals in the Philippines over protests planned Saturday. Chinese tourists also make up about 9 percent of total arrivals to the Philippines, according to the Philippines Department of Tourism.