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Beijing rejects Vietnam protest over South China Sea landing
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Jan 3, 2016


Anti-China protesters return from Philippine-held island
Manila (AFP) Jan 3, 2016 - Nearly 50 young Filipinos returned Sunday from a remote Philippine-held island in the South China Sea where they had staged a week-long protest against Beijing's claims in the disputed waterway.

The group arrived at Pag-asa island on December 26 as part of an effort to stir up popular opposition to China's claim to most of the contested sea, including Pag-asa, also known as Thitu.

The 47 youths have now returned to Palawan island in the Philippines, Joy Ban-eg, a coordinator of the group, confirmed.

Pag-asa island is part of the Spratlys chain in the South China Sea. China claims most of the sea but the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have conflicting claims.

The end of the trip by the 47 Filipino youths coincided with a fresh flare-up between China and claimant Vietnam over the contested sea, as Hanoi accused the Asian giant of landing a plane on a disputed reef.

Beijing insisted the operation took place within Chinese territory.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has said it will also file a protest over the incident.

The youth group, organised by a former navy officer, is called Kalayaan Atin Ito, which translates as "Kalayaan, This Is Ours".

"Kalayaan" is the name of a township established by the Philippines in the Spratlys to assert its territorial claim and is also the Filipino word for freedom.

The Philippine government had previously praised the group's "patriotism" but had urged them not to proceed with the trip, while the youth group had accused the Philippine government of not doing enough to stand up to China.

Photographs of the group, posted on their Facebook page, showed the youths camping on the island and posing with patriotic banners.

Reacting to the trip, the Chinese foreign ministry had previously said it was "strongly dissatisfied with the actions and words of the Philippine side."

Despite having one of the weakest militaries in the region, the Philippines has been vocal in challenging China's claims to the South China Sea, a vital sealane and rich fishing ground which is also believed to hold vast mineral resources.

The Philippines has an international arbitration case now pending in the Hague where it is challenging China's territorial claims, though China has refused to recognise the proceedings.

Beijing has rejected a protest from Vietnam after a Chinese plane landed on a contested reef in the South China Sea, saying the operation took place within Chinese territory.

A Chinese "test flight" landed on Fiery Cross reef, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in an online statement late Saturday. Vietnam also claims the reef.

China has asserted its claim to almost all of the South China Sea by rapidly building artificial islands including airstrips said to be capable of hosting military jets.

It began work in 2014 on a 3,000-metre (9,842 feet) runway on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratlys island group, around 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from China's island province of Hainan.

Hua said the test flight was civilian in nature, adding that the "relevant activity falls completely within China's sovereignty".

Hanoi earlier strongly protested at the flight, labelling it a violation of sovereignty which "influences peace and stability in the South China Sea".

"Vietnam resolutely protests China's above-mentioned action, asking China to immediately end while not repeating similar move," said foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh in Hanoi.

Vietnamese officials also said they had asked Beijing to investigate the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a suspected Chinese boat.

The fishermen were around 60 nautical miles from Con Co Island in central Quang Tri province on Friday when a foreign boat crashed into their craft.

The 11 crew members were rescued but the boat sank, the fishermen told the VNExpress news site.

The captain was quoted as saying that he saw Chinese characters on the foreign boat.

Ha Le, deputy head of the Vietnam Fisheries Surveillance Department, told AFP Chinese officials had offered to check on the report if more details became available.

Relations between the communist neighbours have grown tense in recent years over the disputed Spratly and Paracel island chains.

Rioting broke out in Vietnam after Beijing sent an oil rig into contested waters in 2014, and at least three Chinese people were killed.

Since then the two sides have tried to mend relations. China's President Xi Jinping visited Hanoi in November but that visit also saw anti-Chinese protests.

Hanoi has stepped up cooperation with the US, in what analysts say is a hedge against China's rising power.

Several other claimants have also built facilities in the South China Sea but at a slower pace than China.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the Sea, home to strategic shipping lanes as well as substantial oil and gas reserves.

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