Philippines and China Stand Off in South China Sea

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April 11, 2012

MANILA (Dow Jones)–The Philippines Wednesday said it is trying to find a diplomatic solution to a tense standoff between a Philippine warship and two Chinese surveillance vessels over fishing rights in the South China Sea, as long-brewing tensions in the contested waters reach a fresh crisis point.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said he met with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing and both reaffirmed their governments’ positions that the Scarborough Shoal, where the ships are facing off, was part of their own country’s territory and neither was ready to stand down.

Mr. del Rosario said that despite the impasse, and warning that the Philippines would defend itself if attacked, “we resolved to seek a diplomatic solution to the issue.”

“The ambassador of China took the view that they have full sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal,” Mr. del Rosario told reporters after the meeting at his Manila office. “So, in a sense, we had reached an impasse in terms of our positions. And so there’s a real challenge for us in terms of our agreement to keep on talking today.”

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III repeated the call for calm in the heavily fished and potentially energy-rich sea. “Nobody will benefit if violence breaks out there,” the Associated Press reported Mr. Aquino as saying.

The two navies encountered each other after the Philippine vessel–a former Coast Guard cutter provided by the U.S. Navy–attempted to arrest the crew of several Chinese fishing boats who were anchored at Scarborough Shoal, off the Philippines’s northwest coast but which is also claimed by China. The Philippine government said Chinese surveillance vessels intervened to prevent any arrests, leading to the standoff, and that Filipino sailors who inspected the Chinese vessels on Tuesday found illegally collected corals and live sharks in one of the fishing boats.

China is locked in a series of overlapping territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, all of whom claim either all or part of the South China Sea as their sovereign territory. The dispute has flared in recent months as the region’s potential energy reserves begin to draw growing attention.

In the past year, Vietnam and the Philippines have accused Chinese navy craft of harassing oil-exploration vessels operating in their United Nations-defined maritime economic zones. Beijing has denied that, but has warned Vietnam and the Philippines from prospecting in the area without its permission.

“This is part of larger pattern. These new standoffs are coming to light only because we are better positioned to stand up to China now,” said a Philippine military official.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila released a statement saying that 12 fishing boats had sought shelter from a storm in a lagoon. “Two Chinese marine surveillance ships are in this area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests,” the statement said, adding that the shoal “is an integral part of the Chinese territory and the waters around the traditional fishing area for Chinese fishermen.”

China’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, said in a statement that the Philippines had broken an agreement to maintain peace and stability in the region. “We hope the Philippines can focus on China-Philippines friendship, peace and stability and won’t make new disturbances,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.

The U.S., too, has angered China in stating that the South China Sea, which carries about half the world’s trade, remains free for navigation. Washington has stepped up military and diplomatic ties with Hanoi and Manila, providing the refurbished cutter, now named the Gregorio del Pilar, to the Philippine navy last year and pledging to deliver another craft. Next week, the U.S. and Philippine militaries will resume an annual series of military exercises, including drills off the Philippines’s western coast.

Those exercises appear likely to further antagonize Beijing. Already this week, a hawkish Chinese general has warned that the Philippines is facing its “last chance” to peacefully resolve sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea. Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, writing in the Global Times newspaper, accused the Philippines of hijacking a recent Southeast Asian summit in order to further pressure China over the South China Sea, and warned that Manila’s alleged provocations would fail.

“The biggest miscalculation of the Philippines is that it has misestimated the strength and willpower of China to defend its territorial integrity,” Gen. Luo wrote.

While not necessarily reflecting the Chinese government’s views, Gen. Luo’s comments show signs of growing impatience with the Philippines after Manila adopted a more aggressive stance toward its South China Sea claims under President Benigno Aquino III, who was elected in 2010 and has since sought to revive the Philippines’ sometimes fragile ties to the U.S.

Diplomats say the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was much more wary of antagonizing Beijing.

The Philippines is also working on developing a closer relationship with Vietnam.

Previously there was relatively little contact between the two countries, but now there is a growing military-to-military relationship that might soon result in the two countries holding formal exercises, or at least joint search-and-rescue training, diplomats say.

In addition, the Philippines has proposed holding soccer matches between Filipino and Vietnamese troops on some of the contested atolls in the South China Sea. Philippine Admiral Alexander Pama Tuesday told reporters the Philippines has suggested sending some sailors and troops to Vietnamese-occupied islands, while Vietnamese troops could visit Philippine-held islands. Adm. Pama said it could be called the “fun games,” and stressed there would be no firearms training involved.

By James Hookway — Brian Spegele in Beijing contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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