Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) -
As though it were keeping the peace in fiercely disputed waters, China said the tension in Scarborough Shoal had eased with no Philippine ships in sight to challenge the Chinese vessels maintaining watch in the disputed area.
Hong Lei, spokesperson of China¿s foreign ministry, told a press conference in Beijing that Chinese government ships and fishing boats ¿have maintained jurisdiction and vigilance¿ in the shoal¿located 220 kilometres off Zambales in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea)-and that ¿the current situation ... tends to be relaxed in general¿.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Monday claimed the Chinese fishing boats had withdrawn. They never left. After Del Rosario¿s claim, a Philippine Navy reconnaissance plane sighted 23 Chinese fishing boats-six large vessels and 17 dinghies in the lagoon.
Hong reiterated at the same time that Beijing had ¿indisputable sovereignty¿ over the Spratly group of islands, also in the West Philippine Sea, and its adjacent waters.
Hong urged Manila to ¿refrain from taking any action that may complicate and magnify the dispute and affect peace and stability in the South China Sea¿.
Hong said ¿the Chinese side will continue to maintain administration and vigilance over Huangyan Island waters¿.
China refers to Scarborough Shoal as Huangyan Island while the Philippines refers to the area either as Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal.
Zhang Hua, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Makati City, earlier told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that China had no immediate plans of pulling out its ships from the shoal.
In a text message, Zhang, also deputy chief of the embassy¿s political section, said his government had not expressed any intention of withdrawing its service ships from the area.
¿There is no such commitment from China," Zhang said.
But the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Monday that China had made good its promise and pulled out the 20-plus Chinese fishing boats operating in the shoal.
¿Based on coordination between the Philippines and China, as of two days ago, we have received information that all (Chinese fishing boats) have left the lagoon of the Bajo de Masinloc," the DFA said in the statement.
This was disputed later by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and the Navy chief, Vice Admiral Alexander Pama, who said that Chinese vessels were still in the area.
Pama said the Chinese government vessels and fishing boats had been going in and out of the area apparently in some kind of a rotation.
Talks going on
China has welcomed the Philippine government¿s decision on June 15 to order home its two vessels involved in a face-off with Chinese ships at the shoal.
The withdrawal of a Philippine Coast Guard search-and-rescue patrol vessel and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources survey ship ended more than two months of standoff in the shoal, leaving Chinese vessels alone in the area.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordered the two ships home amid stormy weather in the West Philippine Sea but later said the government was studying the possibility of returning the ships to the shoal after the weather shall have improved.
Despite statements from China that it had no plans of leaving the shoal, the DFA insisted that talks were going on for the withdrawal of the Chinese vessels.
The dispute began on April 8 after Chinese vessels blocked Philippine patrol ships trying to arrest Chinese fishermen who were caught poaching sharks and collecting rare clams and corals in the shoal.
Although a signatory to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), Beijing refuses to recognise the Philippine exclusive economic zone, claiming ancient maps prove China owns the shoal and all of the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines has old maps of its own dating back to the Spanish times backing its claim over the shoal.
Various longstanding disputes involving the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei straddle busy sea lanes that are believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. Many fear the disputes could spark a violent conflict.