Eight Chinese fishing boats and a surveillance ship involved in a standoff with the Philippines left the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on Friday, easing tensions between China and the Philippines.
But the tensions spiked again Saturday afternoon after China sent back a surveillance vessel to the shoal and a Chinese aircraft flew over a Philippine Coast Guard vessel facing off a Chinese ship in the area.
The Chinese fly-by Saturday afternoon may have been the response to the Philippines’ surveillance fly-by made in the morning, the Inquirer has learned from a highly placed official who spoke to the Inquirer on condition he not be named.
Hours after reporting that all but one Chinese vessel had left the waters off Scarborough Shoal by Friday, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said one of the larger vessels later returned.
The vessel’s return boosted the Chinese presence to two vessels, while a Chinese aircraft also arrived and made fly-bys above a Philippine Coast Guard vessel stationed in the area, Del Rosario said.
A Chinese vessel also harassed a Philippine-registered vessel conducting a scientific survey, Del Rosario said without elaborating.
The Philippine vessel reportedly had nine French nationals aboard doing archaeological surveys of the waters in the area.
Del Rosario said the latest developments came despite his agreement with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing not to take any action that would escalate tensions in the area. “It appears that there is an element that is lacking in our negotiations,” he said in a written statement to reporters after receiving an updated report from the Coast Guard.
It was unclear Saturday night why China sent back the civilian ship to Scarborough. The ship’s return brought the number of vessels in the shoal to three, from two earlier in the day: the BRP Pampanga and one Chinese surveillance craft.
The departure of the Chinese fishing boats greatly eased the tensions on Saturday. The Philippines, however, failed to confiscate the Chinese boats’ illegal harvest of giant clams, corals and sharks.
Del Rosario called the Chinese getaway “regrettable.”
PH flag asserts sovereignty
But the commander of the Philippine Navy, Rear Adm. Alexander Pama, considered keeping the Philippine flag flying in the area more significant than confiscating the Chinese’s illegal catch. The flag’s flying there signified that the Philippines was asserting its sovereignty in the disputed waters, Pama said.
Earlier Saturday, Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, the military commander in northern Luzon, said that apparently the Chinese pullouts were “the result of the negotiations by our foreign department with their Chinese counterparts.”
But Del Rosario said in a statement released by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) earlier Saturday that his meeting with Ma on Friday night produced no clear agreement on the fishing boats’ departure.
He said he had told Ma that the Philippines was willing to allow the boats to return to China but only after confiscating their illegal catch.
“There was no clear agreement, as Ambassador Ma asserted that Chinese fishing vessels would be subject to inspection by their own authorities,” Del Rosario said.
Pullout during negotiation
“We later learned that all the Chinese fishing vessels had left the lagoon, a development [we had been working for] except for our not being able to confiscate their illegal harvest pursuant to the Fisheries Code, which was regrettable,” Del Rosario said.
The military said the pullout began Friday, as Philippine and Chinese diplomats negotiated a resolution of the standoff that began Sunday with the interception of Chinese boats found illegally fishing at Scarborough Shoal.
The shoal is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone but China insists it is part of its territory.
Crossed by major shipping lanes, the area is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves as well as fish stocks and other commercially attractive marine life.
The tensions began on Sunday when the Philippines sent its largest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a US Hamilton-class cutter, to the shoal to stop the Chinese boats from further removing marine life in the shoal.
China responded by sending two surveillance vessels, which blocked the path of the Philippine warship to prevent the arrest of the Chinese fishers.
Diplomatic negotiations throughout the week led to the departures of one Chinese surveillance vessel and the Gregorio del Pilar on Thursday.
Philippine officials said the cutter left only to restock and refuel. It was replaced at the shoal by a Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel, the BRP Pampanga, while a third Chinese surveillance craft took the place of the one that pulled out.
As negotiations continued on Friday, the Chinese fishing boats began to leave the shoal.
“At 12 noon [on Friday, seven Chinese vessels, including a marine survey vessel called Zhungguo Haijan 75, left,” Lieutenant General Alcantara told reporters.
“Then at 6 or 7 p.m., five Chinese fishing vessels left, including the Chinese fisheries law enforcement command vessel, pulled out of the site,” he said.
As for the illegally harvested giant clams, coral and baby sharks that Philippine authorities had found on the Chinese fishing boats, Alcantara said the Chinese left carrying them.
“Apparently, as far as I know, they took it with them,” Alcantara said. “I have no direct information, but it could be part of the negotiations.”
Alcantara said the pullouts on both sides helped ease tensions. “Of course, this is [a good development] and it is our wish that this be resolved peacefully.”
But Del Rosario said his meeting with Ma on Friday night ended in a “stalemate.” He said both countries demanded that the other’s vessels be the first to leave the shoal.
By that time, only the Coast Guard’s BRP Pampanga was facing off the two Chinese surveillance vessels, which were covering eight Chinese fishing boats.
Apparently, the Chinese vessels were pulling out even as he and Ma were talking.
‘Years of Friendly Exchanges’
Del Rosario said he and the Chinese ambassador had been trying to reach an understanding in the spirit of the “Years of Friendly Exchanges” launched in Beijing on April 11 and in Manila on March 20.
He said the Philippines would continue to monitor the situation in coordination with other governmental agencies.
Del Rosario is leaving today (Sunday) for the United States to campaign for Justice Florentino Feliciano, the Philippine candidate to the International Court of Justice.
He said other DFA officials would replace him in the negotiations with China.
On Friday, he said he and Ma agreed to set aside diplomatic protests in order to ease tensions over the standoff. But that did not mean the two countries were withdrawing their protests.
Alcantara said on Saturday that the military would not be complacent. “We’re always prepared. This is not their first incursion,” he said. “Our Navy and Coast Guard are always patrolling these waters to take care of our interests in these parts.”
China claims all of the South China Sea, even waters up to the coasts of other countries in the region, are Chinese territory.
Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the waters as their own. With reports from AP and AFP