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World | National

Philippines, China hit diplomatic, military impasse over Scarborough Shoal standoff
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines and China are in a diplomatic and military impasse in a new area of the West Philippine Sea as the newly bought warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar stands guard outside a lagoon of Scarborough Shoal where two Chinese maritime surveillance ships keep watch over at least eight Chinese fishing boats.

The two Chinese surveillance ships entered the scene in an apparent bid to neutralize the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, whose team earlier boarded the fishing boats after a routine patrol, and found a huge stash of corals and live sharks, among others.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario admitted the impasse in a press conference following a meeting with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing, where both claimed sovereignty over the shoal that is known to the Philippines as Panatag Shoal and to the Chinese as Huangyan Island.

“We have reached an impasse in terms of position. There’s a real challenge to us to have agreements, to keep on talking today. We resolved to seek a diplomatic solution to the issue,” he said, refusing to detail the options to the media.

Asked if both resolved to reduce military presence in the area as a means to lower the tension there, del Rosario said: “Both of us are aware in a spirit of friendship and cooperation that tensions should not be increased, that we should work at keeping tensions down. There are many options on the table.”

Both parties have issued their respective diplomatic protest over the incident. Del Rosario handed a note verbale to Ma during Wednesday’s meeting, while a Philippine diplomat in Beijing was also summoned to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the same incident.

The new tension started April 8, when the Philippines noted the presence of Chinese fishing boats in the area, prompting the military to send to the area the flagship navy vessel -- which was on its way from Palawan to Northern Luzon for the planned North Korea rocket launch -- with instructions to investigate the matter. BRP Gregorio del Pilar got there on the morning of April 10 and sent a team to board the ships. In the cargo hold of the first ship it boarded, the local Navy team found corals, giant clams and other endangered maritime species. The team of 12 Philippine soldiers, including six who were armed, voluntarily left the Chinese ships and returned to their mother ship to wait for further instructions, Navy Vice Admiral Alexander Pama told reporters at the press conference.

Later, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar reported, Chinese surveillance ships Zhonggou Haijian 75 and Zhonggou Haijian 84 managed to sail at the mouth of the shoal, placing themselves between PF-15 (BRP del Pilar) and the Chinese fishing vessels, preventing the arrest of the Chinese fishermen.

Within Philippine EEZ

The eight Chinese fishing vessels were anchored within Philippine territory inside a lagoon of Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, 124 nautical miles from Zambales, or within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

On the evening of April 10, del Rosario wrote Ma to tell her that the shoal is "an integral part of Philippine territory."

Northern Luzon Command chief Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara stressed in a radio interview that "we have the authority to confiscate" the contraband marine products from the Chinese finshermen and hold their vessels.

At the same time, Alcantara said they would bring in local police and the Coast Guard to "tone down" the situation and make it a "purely maritime and police affair."

BRP Gregorio del Pilar is the first patrol frigate that the Philippine government bought from the United States. It was built as a US Coast Guard Hamilton class cutter.

A second one is soon to be delivered from the US, President Benigno Aquino III had declared in his Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) speech at Mount Samat in Bataan last Monday, marking the 70th anniversary of the Fall of Bataan and the Death March.