China now selling a tour to the Panatag Shoal of the Philippines

 Nothing like a leisurely trip to a geopolitical flashpoint to spice up the weekend.

Perhaps most tourists wouldn't think so, but more than 50,000 Chinese netizens responded to a lottery posted over the weekend by group-buying site Meituan for a trip to the Scarborough Shoal, according to a local media report. The area, also known in Chinese as Huangyan Island, has been at the center of a growing dispute between China and the Philippines, with each side confronting the other over the contested territory.

A listing of the contest on another website, showed a picturesque tropical island, and advertised, "A dream come true, Meituan takes you to Panatag Shoal or Huangyan Island for a day."

A link to the original Meituan offer redirected visitors to the company's main website. Contacted about the post, a Meituan representative said "the offer has already finished." But Chinese group buying websites often cross-post offers, and a web search turned up the advertisement on a number of web sites.

The Meituan representative didn't respond to inquiries about whether or how the trip would be carried out. Those could be salient questions. According to an article in China's Oriental Morning Post, an official with Hainan's Sanya city said such a trip would carry "enormous risk," adding that the possibility of reaching the islands would be "incredibly small." The article added that currently only naval ships and approved fishing vessels are allowed to sail to Panatag Shoal.

According to the article, industry experts dumped even more cold water on the plans. Though the purported itinerary for the trip has tourists hopping a speedboat from Hainan — first to the Paracels in six to eight hours, and then to Panatag Shoal (Huangyan Island) in another three to four hours — experts said that a normal journey to Panatag (Huangyan) by sea would take 30 hours from Hainan. And perhaps of greater risk to tourists than any naval confrontation, the article points out typhoon season is just starting up in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea).

Given that the original ad has been taken down, the chance for Chinese tourists to go see what their country is beefing about with the Philippines seems slim. But given the likely practical impediments, and the lack of answers about who was making the offer, it's unclear any winner would ever have the chance to collect.

Read in It's More Fun in the Philippines website  

China Maintains Tough Line on Philippines

Anti-China demonstrations in Manila that had alarmed Beijing largely fizzled on Friday, but China continued its rhetoric against the Philippines over a standoff in the South China Sea.

Analysts say that China's tough line is being fueled by domestic politics, and the longer the standoff between Manila and Beijing over disputed islands continues, the more challenging it becomes for both sides to negotiate a face-saving resolution. China's ruling Communist Party is particularly nervous about being seen as weak ahead of its sensitive once-a-decade leadership transition beginning late this year, the analysts say.

Filipinos chanted anti-China slogans as they marched toward the Chinese consulate in Manila's Makati financial district on Friday.

"It means that China is going to be even more assertive on these issues because the leadership can't afford to be seen as weak with its own domestic constituency," particularly the People's Liberation Army, said Alan Dupont, a regional-security expert at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Only about 200 people took part in a rally at a Chinese consular office in Manila, according to organizers, well below initial expectations. The protesters echoed recent calls by the government of President Benigno Aquino III for China to end its claims of sovereignty over the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a collection of reefs, rocks and islands known in Chinese as Huangyan Island.

Chinese and Philippine vessels have for the past month been confronting each other at the island, the latest and most severe in a string of territorial disputes threatening China's wider bilateral relations across the region.

The Philippines relies on Washington for strategic backing and military hardware, though analysts say the U.S. is likely requesting the Philippines not to push China too aggressively. The countries have a mutual-defense treaty, but it remains unclear whether that would be triggered by fighting in disputed territories.

At a press briefing Friday, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the government wasn't involved in planning Friday's protests, but declined to discuss specific diplomatic efforts Manila was taking to defuse the situation.

On Thursday, the Chinese government demanded that the Philippines protect Chinese citizens against possible violence from protesters. As tensions rose, several of China's major tour operators announced they were suspending trips to the Philippines.

Chinese officials and state media in recent days have heightened rhetoric against Manila, potentially making it more difficult for Beijing to back down.

Analysts say that China's response is being complicated by the recent ouster of political superstar and Politburo member Bo Xilai, which has created domestic political uncertainty in a leadership transition year. The analysts say that the Chinese military and security forces may seek to use the standoff as they jockey for influence in the transition.

The South China Sea contains important fishing grounds and is also thought to hold vast reserves of oil and natural gas.

The PLA Daily, the main military mouthpiece, on Friday accused the Philippines of "inciting public emotions and seriously damaging the atmosphere of bilateral relations."

"The Philippine government obviously does not understand they are in the process of committing a serious mistake," the newspaper said.

In a separate opinion piece, the newspaper argued that the Obama administration's efforts to bolster U.S. military and strategic presence in Asia had provided the Philippines and others in the region greater strategic maneuvering room when dealing with China.

Recent tensions around the Scarborough Shoal began last month after Chinese vessels blocked Philippine authorities from arresting Chinese fishermen suspected of harvesting coral and poaching sharks in the area. Philippine officials said this week two Philippine government vessels, at least three from China and fishing boats from both sides remain engaged in the standoff.

China Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said this week she wasn't optimistic about resolving the dispute.

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