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Philippines, China ease tensions over shoal

Publication Date : 14-04-2012

 

The Philippines and China agreed on Friday to set aside their diplomatic protests in order to ease tensions over a naval standoff at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

China also pulled back one of three surveillance ships at the Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters. But the impasse remained with two other Chinese ships facing off a Philippine Coast Guard vessel.

Three of eight Chinese fishing boats at the center of the standoff may have left the shoal on Friday.

Setting aside the protests, however, did not mean withdrawing them. Del Rosario said the protests would still be coming, but the two sides would not give primary attention to them, as both wanted to break the standoff by diplomatic means.

Del Rosario, who met with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing on Friday morning, said the Philippines and China agreed to maintain the “status quo” and not take any further provocative action at the shoal as they sought to negotiate a resolution.

"I think that we were able to succeed in moving forward by a few steps but there are other matters that remain outstanding,” Del Rosario said, adding that the talks in Manila would continue.

"We both want this resolved as soon as possible. We’ve agreed that both sides will not do anything to escalate the situation there any further,” he said.

Unresolved issues

Among the unresolved matters was whether the Chinese fishermen would be arrested, which, Del Rosario said, was not discussed during his meeting with Ma.

The Philippines accused the fishermen of being there illegally, saying the area was Philippine territory because it was within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognised by international law.

But China, insisting that the shoal was Chinese territory, sent three civilian maritime surveillance ships to prevent the Philippine Navy’s largest vessel, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, from arresting the Chinese fishermen.

The Philippines withdrew its warship on Thursday, replacing it with a Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel in what was widely seen as an effort to lower tensions by taking away the immediate threat of military force.

Del Rosario said Ma presented her own proposal to end the standoff, which began on Sunday when Chinese ships prevented the Philippine Navy from detaining Chinese fishermen who were allegedly caught poaching.

Both sides claim the uninhabited, horseshoe-shaped shoal, which lies about 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Zambales province, the nearest Philippine coast.

The four-day-old standoff has reignited concern for potential conflict in the West Philippine Sea, which China calls South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest lanes that is also home to a myriad of competing territorial claims, most notably the Spratly Islands south of the shoal.

The disputes have settled into an uneasy standoff since the last major clash, which involved China and Vietnam and killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988.

The barren islands, reefs and coral outcrops are claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. They are rich fishing grounds and are believed to contain oil and gas reserves.

Apart from the Philippines, Vietnam has recently figured in territorial spats with China, while the United States has angered Beijing when it declared it was in its national interest to ensure the area remained stable.

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez told reporters on Friday that the Chinese Embassy had informed the Philippines that one of the three Chinese vessels had also been withdrawn.

Del Rosario confirmed the withdrawal of the Chinese vessel. The vessel was needed elsewhere, Del Rosario said, and it was replaced by a third Chinese vessel that arrived at the shoal on Thursday.

The departure of the Chinese vessel, he said, could be seen as China’s own step to ease tensions at the shoal.

"The new vessel that entered the area is actually a fisheries vessel, which I understand would look into the alleged violations of the Chinese fishing boats,” Del Rosario said.

He said there were just three vessels at the shoal, the two Chinese vessels and the Philippine Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue vessel.

The Philippine Department of National Defence (DND) saw the departure of the Chinese vessel as “positive sign” that China wanted to resolve the impasse peacefully.

Welcome move

DND spokesperson Peter Paul Galvez told reporters that the Chinese vessel’s departure was a welcome move by Beijing, but he stopped short of saying the standoff was ending.

"They are still observing each other,” Galvez said.

There were reports last night that three of eight Chinese fishing boats at the center of the standoff had left Scarborough Shoal.

Del Rosario told reporters seeking confirmation of the reports that he believed three of the fishing boats were able to leave, as “no one is preventing anyone from leaving [or] entering.”

From the point of view of the defense department, the Philippines did not blink when the BRP Gregorio del Pilar left Scarborough Shoal on Thursday.

Reports on Thursday said the Navy cutter left the shoal to restock and refuel. The vessel was believed heading toward Poro Point, in La Union province.

Galvez said the Philippine decision to remove the BRP Gregorio del Pilar followed its assessment that the impasse could be resolved through diplomacy.

He noted that the Chinese decision to withdraw one of its vessels came at the same time as the departure from the shoal of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar.

"We can now proceed with effecting whatever maritime rules and laws we have,” Galvez said.

No US help

At no point since Sunday did the Philippines consider seeking help from the United States. Del Rosario said US intervention “was never part of the discussion.” At the DND, Galvez said the impasse was not a situation that called for US intervention. He said he believed the Philippines and China could settle the matter by themselves. “We are very hopeful this situation will be resolved very soon,” he said. With reports from DJ Yap, AP and AFP

 

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