x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Diplomatic course plotted away from Philippines and China standoff

Philippines warship and Chinese vessels clash over territory in the South China Sea.

MANILA // The Philippines agreed with China yesterday to resolve diplomatically a standoff between a Philippine warship and two Chinese surveillance vessels in the disputed South China Sea.

But the Philippines said neither side was ready to stand down from the most dangerous confrontation there in recent years - and warned China that it would defend itself if provoked.

Albert Del Rosario, the Philippines foreign secretary, said he met the Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing and both insisted that the Scarborough Shoal, where the ships are facing off, was part of their country's territory. Despite the impasse, "we resolved to seek a diplomatic solution to the issue", Mr Del Rosario said.

"Nobody will benefit if violence breaks out there," said the Phillipnes president, Benigno Aquino.

The Philippines government said the standoff began when its navy tried to detain Chinese boats fishing in its waters, but was 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 South China Sea is home to a myriad of competing territorial claims, most notably the Spratly Islands south of the shoal, an island chain claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. The barren islands, reefs and coral outcrops are believed to be in 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 yesterday. Mr Del Rosario said he warned China's ambassador that "if the Philippines is challenged, we are prepared to secure our sovereignty".

The Philippine navy was sending additional vessels towards the shoal, about 200 kilometres from the nearest Philippine coast, a Philippine navy official said.

The standoff began on Sunday when a Philippine navy surveillance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in a lagoon at Scarborough, the Philippine navy said. That prompted the military to deploy its largest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which was recently acquired from the United States.

On Tuesday, armed Filipino troops from the warship boarded the Chinese vessels for an inspection, discovering illegally collected coral, giant clams and live sharks inside the first boat. Mr Del Rosario said the Chinese fishermen had been "engaged in illegal fishing and harvesting of endangered marine species".

The troops did not make an arrest and returned to the warship.

Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships later arrived 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.

In Beijing, the foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin said China lodged a protest, saying the Philippines violated an agreement to maintain peace and stability in the region and prevent any escalation of disputes.

"We hope the Philippines can focus on China-Philippines friendship, peace and stability, and won't make new disturbances," Mr Liu said.