China's Defense Ministry, apparently responding to online rumors fueled by a standoff with the Philippines in the South China Sea, denied that it was making preparations for war.
Rumors last week on popular Chinese military-discussion pages claimed that military units had begun battle preparations and military personnel had been ordered to cancel vacations. The standoff between China and the Philippines is over the Scarborough Shoal, a collection of islands, rocks, and reefs known in Chinese as Huangyan Island.
In a brief statement posted online, the Chinese defense ministry said, "Reports that the Guangzhou Military Region, the South Sea Fleet and other units entered a state of combat readiness are not true."
The statement underscores a rising level of concern over the monthlong confrontation between Chinese and Philippine government vessels—the latest and potentially most volatile in a string of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The dispute comes as China grapples with political turmoil at home following the ouster of Chongqing party secretary and Politburo member Bo Xilai, ahead of the sensitive once-a-decade political transition beginning late this year.
With the transition imminent, "China is going to be even more assertive on these issues because the leadership can't afford to be seen as weak with its own domestic constituency," particularly the People's Liberation Army, said Alan Dupont, a regional-security expert at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
In Manila Friday, an anti-China protest drew about 200 demonstrators, well short of expectations. They echoed recent calls by the government of President Benigno Aquino III for China to end its claims of sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal.
The South China Sea contains important fishing grounds and is thought to hold vast reserves of oil and natural gas, though territorial disputes have complicated investment by international energy companies. The sea is claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Scarborough Shoal standoff began last month when Chinese vessels prevented Philippine authorities from arresting Chinese fishermen they suspected of illegally operating in the disputed territory. Philippine authorities in recent days said at least three Chinese government vessels and two Philippine government ships—along with fishing boats from both sides—remained involved.
Chinese officials and state media last week heightened rhetoric against Manila. Analysts said state media's high-profile defense of China's claims to Scarborough signaled that Beijing wasn't prepared to back down. "The Philippine government obviously does not understand they are in the process of committing a serious mistake," said the PLA Daily, the official military mouthpiece, in an article Friday.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said last week she wasn't optimistic about a resolution. Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Friday the government wasn't involved in planning anti-Beijing protests, and declined to discuss specific diplomatic efforts Manila was taking to defuse tensions.