Manila Protesters
Filipino protesters rally in Manila against what is seen as Chinese bullying at Scarborough Shoal. Philippine and Chinese ships have faced-off at the shoal since April 10. Reuters

The naval standoff between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea has the two countries on the brink of conflict, but a demonstration in Manila on Friday against China has been sparsely attended, offering hope that an escalation can be avoided.

On Thursday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was highly concerned over the safety of Chinese nationals and institutions in the Philippines. We demand the Philippines to take effective measures to earnestly protect the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens and institutions in the Philippines.

China has issued a travel advisory for its citizens visiting the Philippines and Chinese travel agencies cancelled tours to the Philippines, just prior to an 'anti-China' protest in Manila. On Friday, Filipino protestors took to the streets to demonstrate against what is seen in their country as Chinese aggression on Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China and Panatag Shoal in the Philippines).

But at the protest itself, only 200 to 300 people showed up, according to different Chinese and Filipino reports. That was a far cry from the organizers' original expectation of more than 1,000. Protesters held signs that looked like they were produced by the Akbayan Social Action Party, a small left-wing political group.

That low figure has produced ridicule from Chinese netizens, many of whom are supporting stronger action, including military force, from their own government to resolve the dispute over the area, where ships from the two countries have been facing each other for a month.

Analysts say that the recent moves by the Chinese government to restrict tourism and Filipino agricultural imports may be a means to use trade to apply further pressure on Manila. The Philippine Department of Tourism says that the number of Chinese tourists to the country surged 77 percent from 2010 to 2011. That means Chinese tourists are likely seen as a major source for new growth and new energy for the Philippine tourist industry.

China's government is indicating that it takes its maritime presence very seriously.

On Thursday, China Daily said that the country was set to build 36 new maritime surveillance ships by 2013.

Although many of the ships are small when compared for example to U.S. coast guard vessels, other countries in the South China Sea would be hard-pressed to match China's naval construction effort. That means China can now deploy more resources for policing and enforcing its maritime borders.

As of Thursday, the Philippine coast guard acknolewdged that China had 4 civilian maritime enforcement vessels in the area of Scarborough Shoal while the Philippines had 2. Philippine news sources say that seven Chinese fishing vessels have returned to the shoal, where the dispute hinges on Filipino accusations of poaching in their waters by Chinese fishermen, while China claims the area as part of its sovereign territory.