China on Friday repeated its warnings to the Philippines to not “escalate” tensions over the South China Sea and expressed concerns over the safety of its citizens in Manila, as a smaller than expected crowd of protesters gathered to hold anti-China demonstrations amid a dispute over the issue.

The Foreign Ministry here called on the Philippines government to “take effective measures to protect the security, lawful rights and interests of Chinese citizens” in the country and hit out at Friday’s demonstrations, which received a much smaller than expected turnout of around 200 protesters who chanted slogans outside a Chinese consular office in Manila. Beijing said the move that would “escalate and complicate the current situation”.

The Philippines government said while it was not behind the protest, it would not stop the demonstrations to protect the "freedom of expression". “We would like to assure our Chinese friends that we, the government, did not have a hand ,” Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda was reported as telling a press conference. “This is not something that is provoked by the government. This is instigated by private citizens who felt they needed to express their opinion on the matter.”

While voicing its displeasure with the demonstration, the Chinese Foreign Ministry did however indicate it welcomed moves by the Philippines government to resume diplomatic contact with the Chinese embassy to ease the diplomatic crisis, which was sparked following a stand-off between vessels from both countries at the Scarborough Shoal or Huangyan island over which they have competing claims, which began on April 8.

In a reflection of rising tensions, China this week issued a safety advisory to its citizens in the Philippines and suspended all travel to the country ahead of the demonstrations. Ctrip, a popular travel portal, said it suspended travel because “trips to the Philippines have become potential safety risks”, the official China Daily reported.

State-run media outlets here have also issued a series of strongly-worded warnings to the Philippines, not ruling out the use of force to settle the issue, although Chinese officials have stressed that they viewed negotiations as the best way to defuse the situation.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) daily said in an editorial on Thursday 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”.

“If one mistakes China’s kindness for weakness and regards China as a ‘paper dragon’ as instigated by some onlookers, he is terribly wrong,” the newspaper said in a commentary headlined “Don’t attempt to take away half an inch of China’s territory”.

The warnings as well as the Philippines government's refusal to back down have stoked regional fears.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a statement on Thursday voiced its concerns, saying that “maintenance of peace and security in the region is of vital interest to the international community” and India urged both countries “to exercise restraint and resolve the issue diplomatically”.

Asked about India's statement, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters China had “always been stressing that it remains committed to solving the current situation through diplomatic consultations”.

“The key,” he added, “is that the Philippines side should show sincerity and meet the Chinese side half way, and seriously respond to China’s concerns and not take actions that complicate the situation”.

Suggesting the stand-off may yet be resolved peacefully, China on Thursday also appeared to respond positively to a Philippines-based mining company’s proposal for joint drilling with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation. Officials said Beijing was willing to talk with the Philippines government over joint development.

The South China Sea, which is disputed by China and at least ten other countries, is estimated to have as much as one-third of China's oil and gas resources and key sea lanes run through its disputed waters.

China’s first deep-water drilling rig in the South China Sea started operations on Wednesday, with calls from officials to speed up drilling projects. Feng Fei, head of the industry department of the Development Research Centre, the official think-tank of the State Council or Cabinet, told State media more than thousand oil wells had already been sunk by other countries. “China drilling in the South China Sea is of deep significance, and ensures our energy security by reducing dependence on foreign oil,” he said.

Wu Shicun, head of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, added that joint development of resources could help address conflicts. “Against a backdrop of some countries not responding positively toward China’s proposal of joint development, it is of supreme importance to finally solving sovereignty disputes,” he said.

“Setting aside disputes and embarking on joint development is the most effective way to solve the issue.’’

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