by Jason Gutierrez
Manila (AFP) - The Philippines pulled its biggest warship away from a standoff with Chinese vessels Thursday, but said the dispute was far from over with both nations deploying more non-military boats to the area.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines decided to remove the navy's flagship from the tiny set of islands and reefs in the South China Sea while trying to negotiate an end to the five-day impasse.
"We are pursuing the diplomatic track in terms of coming to a resolution on the issue," del Rosario told reporters.
The dispute began on Sunday when Philippine authorities found eight Chinese fishing boats at Scarborough Shoal, 124 nautical miles west of the country's main island of Luzon.
The Philippines accused the fishermen of being there illegally, asserting the area was Philippine territory because it was within the country's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognised by international law.
However China claims all of the South China Sea as its own, even waters up to the coasts of other countries, and Chinese authorities insisted the fishermen were allowed to be at the shoal.
The Philippine Navy deployed its biggest and newest warship to Scarborough Shoal on Sunday, immediately after the Chinese fishermen were discovered there.
The Philippines had planned to arrest the fishermen, but the two Chinese surveillance vessels appeared on the scene on Tuesday and blocked the warship from approaching the fishing boats.
The standoff escalated into a diplomatic brawl on Wednesday when both governments publicly protested each others' actions, and traded accusations as to whose presence in the area was illegal.
Del Rosario said the Philippines had been hopeful of resolving the issue by Thursday, but that appeared now unlikely.
"Yesterday, I was hopeful that we would arrive at a conclusion... I guess that didn't come about," he said.
"So I guess the next milestone is to try and get this done before the weekend."
Del Rosario, who has been leading the negotiations for the Philippines, heads overseas on the weekend.
The pullout of the warship left the Philippines with a 56-metre-long (184-foot) search and rescue coast guard vessel as its only presence at Scarborough Shoal.
However the region's military commander, Lieutenant General Anthony Alcantara, said the warship would still roam around the area and that a second coast guard vessel would also soon arrive.
Meanwhile, del Rosario said the Philippines had been taken by surprise when a third Chinese maritime vessel arrived at Scarborough Shoal on Thursday.
"There are three ships there now. Three white ships," he said.
Asked whether the Chinese side had informed Philippine negotiators about the deployment of the extra ship, del Rosario said: "No they did not."
Competing claims to the South China Sea have long been regarded as one of Asia's potential flashpoints for military conflict.
Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim all or parts of the waters as their own.
More than 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed in 1988 when China and Vietnam battled for control of the Spratlys, an archipelago south of Scarborough Shoal.
The sea holds huge economic and political significance as it is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas resources, is home to vast fishing grounds and hosts shipping lanes that carry a third of the globe's maritime trade.
The Philippines and Vietnam complained last year of increasingly aggressive acts by China in staking its claim to the South China Sea.
The Philippines accused Chinese vessels of firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen, as well as harassing an oil exploration vessel and placing markers on islets within Philippine territory.
However this week's standoff is the highest-profile in recent years.
President Benigno Aquino III said Wednesday he wanted a peaceful resolution of the ongoing standoffbetween a Philippine warship and two Chinese vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, but made it clear that the country’s sovereignty over the area must prevail.
The President was told about the incident on Tuesday night and he promptly met Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and military officials, his spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said.
Speaking to reporters after he accepted an honorary doctorate from Centro Escolar University at Manila Hotel, Mr. Aquino expressed hopes officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) would resolve the impasse in talks with their counterparts in Beijing.
The Philippines said the standoff began on Sunday when its Navy tried to detain Chinese boats fishing in its waters but were stopped by two Chinese surveillance craft. The Chinese Embassy accused the Philippine warship of harassing the fishermen and called for it to leave Chinese territory.
The President said that he had been in contact with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing and that on Wednesday he asked Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to continue the talks with Ma “so that our position on this issue would be made clear.”
“What is important here is that we take care of our sovereignty. We cannot give [Scarborough Shoal] away and we cannot depend on others but ourselves,” Mr. Aquino said. Still, he said the rules of engagement he emphasized to the military were “to ensure no violence will happen there.”
The President said that “had the situation not been tense, maybe we will find it funny” as he explained China had flung back the violations that Philippine officials told them it had committed by its intrusion in the Shoal to the Philippines.
He said this was what Chinese officials told the Philippine charge d’affaires when Beijing summoned him over the incident.
Seeking diplomatic solution
Mr. Aquino insisted Scarborough Shoal is “our sovereign territory” and that Philippine officials had merely asked Beijing why it had intruded in its territory.
“But their answer to our charge d’affaires—and the worst part is, they turned the tables on us—China is claiming Scarborough Shoal, that it was its indisputable territory and even protested the entry of our ship there. So in effect, it’s like we are both saying the same thing from a different point of view,” he said.
The President stressed that the Philippines and China are signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which specifies each country’s exclusive economic zones.
GOING ROGUE One of two Chinese surveillance ships which blocked the Philippine Navy from detaining the Chinese fishing vessels. PHOTO COURTESY OF DFA-PISU
“No one will surely benefit if there will be an eruption of violence there. So we are hoping (for a peaceful resolution),” the Chief Executive said.
Del Rosario said he and the Chinese ambassador reaffirmed their governments’ positions that the Scarborough Shoal was part of their own country’s territory and neither was ready to stand down.
“We have reached an impasse in terms of our positions. So, there’s a real challenge for us in terms of our agreement to keep on talking today and we resolved to seek a diplomatic solution to the issue,” he said. “Both of us are aware in a spirit of friendship and cooperation that tensions should not be increased, that we should work at keepin
g tensions down.”
PH to defend shoal
The South China Sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea, is home to a myriad of competing territorial claims, most notably the Spratly Islands south of the shoal. The islandsare claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. The barren islands, reefs and coral outcrops are believed to be rich in oil and gas and the overlapping claims have long been feared as Asia’s next flashpoint for armed conflict.
Both China and the Philippines flexed their muscles on Wednesday. Del Rosario said he warned China’s ambassador that “if the Philippines is challenged, we are prepared to secure our sovereignty.”
A Philippine Navy surveillance plane on Sunday spotted eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in a lagoon at Scarborough, the DFA said. That prompted the military to deploy its largest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which was recently acquired from the United States.
GOTCHA! Filipino soldiers board a Chinese fishing vessel loaded with giant clam shells, corals and live sharks. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO FROM NOLCOM
On Tuesday, Filipino sailors from the warship boarded the Chinese vessels for an inspection, discovering large amounts of illegally collected coral, giant clams and live sharks inside the first boat. Del Rosario said the Chinese fishermen had been “engaged in illegal fishing and harvesting of endangered marine species.”
Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships later approached and positioned themselves between the Philippine warship and the Chinese fishing vessels “thus preventing the arrests of the erring Chinese fishermen,” the Philippine statement said.
The Chinese Embassy said the fishing boats had taken shelter from a storm in the lagoon, and that Philippine troops including some who were armed went into the lagoon and harassed the fishermen.
“Two Chinese marine surveillance ships are in this area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests,” it said in a statement.
It said the shoal “is an integral part of the Chinese territory and the waters around it the traditional fishing area for Chinese fishermen.”
‘Law is in our favor’
Lieutenant General Anthony Alcantara, chief of the Northern Luzon Command, said the Philippine Coast Guard would eventually take over from the Philippine Navy to “tone down” and handle the matter as a maritime police case.
Senator Panfilo Lacson supported the moves on the impasse. “We should enforce our own laws. No matter how weak we are as a nation compared to China, the law is in our favor,” he told reporters.
In 2011, the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of intruding into other parts of what it considers Philippine territory. China has regularly dismissed the protests, saying Beijing has indisputable sovereignty over those areas on historical grounds.
The United States has insisted it takes no sides in the territorial dispute but says it should be solved peacefully. China has balked at what it considered US interference in the region.
The disputes over the Spratlys have settled into an uneasy standoff since the last major clash involving China and Vietnam killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988. inquirer.net/AFP