China on Friday urged the Philippines to take "tangible" actions to ease tensions in the dispute over Huangyan Island, as hundreds of Filipinos protested outside the Chinese embassy in Manila.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei criticized the Philippines for "instigating" its people to protest.
"It is a false move," he said at a news briefing on Friday. "It will only make the issue bigger and more complicated."
About 300 people turned up at noon in front of the Chinese embassy in Manila, carrying banners and waving Philippine flags, and held a noisy protest, said the Chinese embassy.
The figure is way below initial estimates, as media anticipated 1,000 people showing up for “large-scale” protests in the Philippine capital.
The protesters sang patriotic hymns and chanted anti-China slogans, and left quietly after a one-hour protest under close watch of dozens of police, AFP reported.
China and the Philippines have been embroiled in a dispute over Huangyan Island in the South China Sea for one month, stemming from Philippine harassment of Chinese fishermen who sought harbor at the island from bad weather.
Ren Yuanzhe, a researcher at China Foreign Affairs University, said the Philippine protesters cannot change the fact that Huangyan Island is part of China.
Manila is using the incident to incite national sentiment and has damaged bilateral relations, he said.
Hong said China is concerned about the safety of its citizens in the Philippines and asked Manila to ensure their security.
Many Chinese travel agencies have suspended tours to the Southeast Asian nation, while the Chinese government has advised its companies and nationals in the country to stay alert.
A spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Friday denied government involvement with the protest, although some of the organizers have links with the president’s political allies, including his chief political adviser, Reuters reported.
“It was the decision taken by private citizens who feel out of patriotism that they have to speak on the issue,” Edwin Lacierda told a news briefing.
In response to the Philippine protests, some Chinese gathered at the Philippine embassy in Beijing and its consulate in Hong Kong to protest Manila’s claim over the sovereignty of Huangyan Island.
Hong on Friday again urged Manila to work with China to solve the dispute through diplomatic means.
The Philippines reportedly resumed diplomatic contact with the Chinese embassy in Manila this week after it suspended contact late last month.
But Ye Hailin, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said he is not sure whether Manila is sincere enough to seek a diplomatic solution.
The resumption of diplomatic contact by the Philippines seems to be a goodwill posture for the international community, especially the United States, Manila’s ally, which has said it will not take sides in the dispute, Ye said.
However, that is at least a step in the right direction, Ye said.
“It will take some time for us to discern whether Manila has the sincerity to ease the tensions through further moves,” he said.