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Beijing Eases Anti-Philippine Talk, Holds Firm on Territorial Dispute

Filipinos chant anti-China slogans over the disputed Scarborough Shoal islands in the South China Sea claimed by both nations as they march toward the Chinese consulate in the Makati financial district of Manila, Philippines, May 11, 2012.

BEIJING - The Chinese government is not yielding in its weeks-long maritime territorial dispute with the Philippines, although it is softening some of its sharp rhetoric.

It is no surprise that China continues to squarely blame the Philippines for the dispute over rocky Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese call Huangyan Island.

In a report Wednesday, the state-run Xinhua news agency said the latest dispute was sparked in April, when a Philippine warship harassed 12 Chinese fishing vessels that had sailed to Huangyan Island to escape bad weather.

Despite strong Chinese protests, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei's comment about the dispute to reporters Wednesday was relatively subdued. He called on Manila to acknowledge what he described as China's clear and consistent position that it has indisputable sovereignty over the island.

Hong said the Philippines should truly respect China's territorial integrity and sovereignty. He added Beijing's demand that Manila pursue diplomatic negotiation over the issue.

On Wednesday, in a different maritime territorial dispute, Chinese negotiators met with their Japanese counterparts to discuss overlapping claims to the Diaoyu Islands, which the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands.

In recent years, there have been heated exchanges over the Diaoyu Islands, but Wang Dong, associate professor of international relations at Peking University, said both sides are now ready to negotiate.

"I think on the Japan-China case, I think both governments, both Beijing and Tokyo, they do have the political will and desire to pursue diplomatic consultation and negotiation over the maritime disputes," said Wang.

In contrast, the China-Philippines dispute is still unfolding. Wang accused the Philippines of complicating matters by, in his words, "throwing around provocative statements and actions," including efforts to claim U.S. protection.

"And, apparently, I think they wanted to count on the American - sort of, to some extent - play the United States against China," he said.

The United States has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, but Washington already has stated that it does not take sides in the current conflict between Beijing and Manila, and wants the issue resolved peacefully.

Li Jinming, a professor at Xiamen University's research center of Southeast Asian Studies, said he thinks Washington is doing the right thing.

Li said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already has said the United States will not take sides on the issue, but that China and the Philippines need to resolve the issue peacefully. He said if the Americans can maintain this attitude, he thinks it could have a good effect on the dispute.