PH, China In Standoff

The Philippines and China yesterday agreed to resolve diplomatically a standoff between a Philippine Navy warship and two Chinese surveillance vessels and eighth Chinese fishing boats anchored at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the most dangerous confrontation there in recent years.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines will continue to look for a diplomatic solution to the standoff, while the Philippine Navy said the situation in Panatag Shoal is stable.

Despite the impasse, "we resolved to seek a diplomatic solution to the issue," Del Rosario told a news conference.

However, Del Rosario stressed that if the Philippines is challenged "we are prepared to secure the territory."

China, however, accused the Philippine warship of illegally entering Chinese waters and ordered it to immediately leave the area.

The Shoal is 124 nautical miles from the nearest basepoint in Zambales. It is within the Philippines' 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf.

The Chinese embassy in Manila released a statement reasserting the country's sovereign rights to the South China Sea, including the disputed area that is much closer to Philippine landmass.

The statement "'urged the Philippine side to stop immediately their illegal activities and leave this area".

China insists it has sovereign rights to all of the South China Sea, even waters close to the coast of other countries and hundreds of kilometers from its own landmass.

The Philippines says it has sovereign rights over areas of the sea within its 200-nautical-mile EEZ, and that its position is supported by international law.

China calls the shoal Huangyan Island, and the Chinese embassy statement insisted the area belonged solely to China.

"The Chinese embassy hereby reiterates that Huangyan Island is an integral part of the Chinese territory and the waters around it is the traditional fishing area for the Chinese fishermen," the statement said.

"Ever since the ancient times, numerous documents on the Chinese history have put down definitely in writing that Huangyan Island belongs to Chinese territory."

"The fact that China has sovereign rights and exercises jurisdiction over the Huangyan Island is widely respected by the international community," an embassy spokesman said.

According to the DFA, a navy surveillance aircraft monitored the eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored inside the Panatag Shoal last Sunday in the course of its enforcement of the Philippine Fisheries Code and marine environment protection laws.

To protect the marine environment and resources in the Panatag Shoal and to assert Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights over the area as a responsible coastal state, the DFA said the PN immediately deployed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PF-15) from Palawan to Northern Luzon to conduct maritime patrol over the Shoal.

In the course of its patrol, PF-15 confirmed the presence of the eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored inside the lagoon of the Shoal.

The PN warship remained in the vicinity of the Shoal for continuous monitoring of the fishing vessels.

Tuesday morning, BRP Gregorio del Pilar , in accordance with the established Rules of Engagement, dispatched a boarding team to inspect the fishing vessels and collect photos and other evidence of their catch.

The DFA said the inspection team reported that large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams, and live sharks were found inside the compartments of the first fishing vessel that was boarded by the PN team.

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar later reported that two Chinese maritime surveillance ships - Zhonggou Haijian 75 and Zhonggou Haijian 84 - sailed to the mouth of the Shoal, placing themselves between the Philippine warship and the eight Chinese fishing vessels, thus preventing the arrest of the erring Chinese fishermen.

To seek a diplomatic solution, Del Rosario communicated with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing Tuesday evening that the Panatag Shoal is an integral part of Philippine territory and the PN is enforcing Philippine laws on the Shoal, which is within the Philippine EEZ and Continental Shelf.

Furthermore, Del Rosario has "summoned" Ambassador Ma to the DFA for further discussion of this issue.

DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said the summon was made in the form of a note verbale, which was delivered to the Chinese envoy.

The meeting transpired before noon between Del Rosario and Ambassador Ma in the presence of some staff from the DFA and the Chinese embassy.

However, it was a different story for the Chinese embassy.

In a statement issued Wednesday, spokesman Zhang Hua said the Chinese embassy received a report Tuesday that 12 Chinese fishing boats are getting in the lagoon of Huangyan Island (Chinese name for Scarborough Shoal) to take shelter due to harsh weather conditions when a Philippine Navy gunboat blocked the entrance of the lagoon, and sent 12 Philippine soldiers, six of which were armed, into the lagoon and harassed the Chinese fishermen.

Zhang said the two Chinese Marine Surveillance ships are in the area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese national maritime rights and interests.

Upon getting the report, the embassy immediately lodged a representation to the DFA and reiterated China's sovereignty over Huangyan Island.

Zhang said the Chinese embassy is still engaged in discussions with the DFA to seek a solution of this issue "so that China-Philippine friendly relations and peace, stability in South China Sea are well preserved in the best interest of the two countries."

Meanwhile, Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said President Benigno S. Aquino III has

met with security officials over the standoff.

He said the Philippine government continues to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels, noting that it wants to have a peaceful resolution to the incident.

Lacierda also said there was no harassment made by the Philippine Navy on the Chinese vessels.

"There were no harassments made," Lacierda said. (With reports from Madel R. Sabater and Sarah H. Velasco)