Philippine police used tear gas to disperse about 1,000 anti-US protesters outside the US embassy in Manila on Wednesday, as television news footage showed a patrol van, which had come under attack, driving at demonstrators.
The rally came as President Rodrigo Duterte visits Beijing to strengthen relations with the world’s second-largest economy amid deteriorating ties with former colonial power the United States.
Police made 29 arrests at the rally while at least 10 people were taken to hospital after being hit by the police van, Renato Reyes, secretary-general of left-wing activist group Bayan (Nation), told reporters.
The protesters were calling for the removal of US troops in the southern island of Mindanao.
“There was absolutely no justification (for the police violence),” Reyes said. “Even as the president avowed an independent foreign policy, Philippine police forces still act as running dogs of the US.”
In a series of conflicting statements, Duterte has insulted US President Barack Obama and the US ambassador in Manila for questioning his war on drugs, which has led to the deaths of 2,300 suspected users and pushers. He told Obama to “go to hell” and alluded to severing ties with Washington.
Then, after weeks of anti-American rhetoric, Duterte recently said the Philippines would maintain its existing defense treaties and its military alliances. The comments have left Americans and US businesses in the Philippines jittery about their future.
Rapprochement on the cards in Beijing
Meanwhile, in Beijing, two sources with ties to the Chinese leadership said China would consider giving Filipino fishermen conditional access to waters in the South China Sea that have been disputed with Manila.
Those reports came as Duterte prepared to raise the plight of the fishermen when he meets his Chinese counterpart — Xi Jinping — on Thursday. China seized Scarborough Shoal — claimed by Beijing as Huangyan island and by Manila as Panatag — in 2012, denying Philippine fishermen access to its rich fishing grounds.
The seizure formed part of a case the Philippines took to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which in July rejected China’s territorial claims over much of the South China Sea, including its assertion of a 200-mile (320 km) exclusive economic zone around the disputed Spratly Islands.
China immediately declared the ruling “null and void” but said it was time to get talks started again between the countries directly involved in the territorial disputes to reach a peaceful resolution.
Arriving at his hotel in Beijing, Duterte told reporters he expected to achieve “plenty of happiness for my country” during his trip to China.
Asked about the South China Sea dispute, he said: “No, that is not one of the topics on the agenda. It might crop up but it is going to be a soft landing for everyone. No impositions.”
However Beijing is now considering making a concession to Duterte, whose rapprochement with China since taking office on June 30 marks an astonishing reversal in recent Philippine foreign policy.
“Everybody can go, but there will be conditions,” one of the Chinese sources who speaks regularly with senior officials told Reuters, referring to Chinese and Filipino fishermen.
Asked what the conditions were, the source said: “The two countries would have to form working groups to iron out details.”
The sources did not say what, if anything, China might demand from Manila in exchange for the fishing concession.
“It will be a return to the Arroyo days,” the second Chinese source said, referring to the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), when fishermen from both countries had access to waters near Scarborough Shoal.
If all goes according to script, fishery cooperation would be one of more than 10 broad framework agreements the two countries would sign during Duterte‘s visit, the sources said, without giving further details.
China has overlapping claims in the South China Sea with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The United States, along with Japan and other powers, want to ensure Beijing doesn’t interfere with free navigation in the strategic South China Sea, which connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans and through which flows US$5 trillion of trade a year.
US. Navy ships have conducted “freedom of navigation” operations around artificial islands China has been building in the disputed Spratly Islands, which mostly consist of coral reefs and tidal features in the South China Sea.
China’s ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jianhua, said last Friday a budding bilateral friendship could boost chances of removing one of their biggest bones of contention in the South China Sea.