MANILA, Philippines, May 11 (UPI) -- The Philippines has reiterated it wants to settle the ongoing Scarborough Shoal dispute with China through dialogue and an international tribunal.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he hopes China will enter into "diplomatic consultations" and not a war of words over the disputed ownership and resource rights surrounding Scarborough Shoal, called Panatag Shoal in the Philippines, he told the Philippines Star newspaper.
Panatag Shoal in the South China Sea is a triangular collection of reefs covering less than 60 square miles and whose highest point is around 10 feet above sea level.
The shoal is more than 400 miles off the Chinese coast but 150 miles off the coast of Zambales, a province on the western shore of Luzon Island, the largest and most northern Philippines island.
China's claim to the islands rests on several treaty interpretations, including Paris 1898, the Treaty of Washington in 1900 and a treaty with Great Britain in 1930, which, the Chinese say, never specifically mentioned Scarborough Shoal as Philippines territory.
What makes ownership important is access to natural resources including oil and gas on the seabed and fishing rights in the area.
Del Rosario warned against statements by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying that Beijing is prepared for "any escalation" over the issue.
"If the (Chinese) vice minister's message is intended to be constructive, we are clearly looking for ways to defuse the situation, essentially through diplomatic consultations. We are endeavoring to continue these consultations," Del Rosario told The Star.
"If, however, the intention is to intimidate, then our position is it does not merit a response."
Since mid-April, relations between Beijing and Manila have been fraught because fishing and research ships of both nations operate around the shoal, usually under Philippines jurisdiction.
Del Rosario said nine Chinese and four Filipino fishing vessels were in the lagoon of the shoal.
He also appealed for international support, particularly from the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- of which the Philippines and China are members -- to bolster Manila's position.
Sen. Manny Villar Jr. called on the government to beef up the armed forces as a general response to any territorial claims, the Star report said.
"We should strengthen the armed forces not because of this issue on Panatag Shoal. ... This should not be for anything else, since it is but normal that every country should strengthen its armed forces," Villar said.
In China, most travel agencies have suspended tours to the Philippines because of fears for the safety of tourists, a report by the BBC said.
An official at one agency confirmed the suspension to the BBC, while another said clients were being warned not to travel.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila posted an advisory for its citizens to stay off the streets and avoid conflict with locals especially during street demonstrations, the BBC said.
The Scarborough Shoal dispute is one of a number of maritime territorial disputes in which China is claiming many islands, shoals and rocky outcrops in the South China Sea.
Among the disputed territories are the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.
As well as Vietnam and China, ownership of various Spratly islands and reefs -- some only visible at low tide -- are disputed by Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines, although Brunei doesn't occupy any of the islands.