China Asks Manila to Withdraw Ships from Shoal

By Jim Gomez 18 April 2012

MANILA, Philippines―China asked the Philippines on Tuesday to withdraw a coast guard ship and an archaeological research vessel from a disputed shoal and ignored a Philippine proposal to bring the problem to a UN-linked tribunal for arbitration.

China and the Philippines have agreed to settle the dispute diplomatically but have both insisted on their ownership of Scarborough Shoal, prolonging an eight-day standoff on the high seas. Two Chinese surveillance ships have been facing off with a Philippine coast guard vessel in the area since last week.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario asked China to bring the dispute to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea for arbitration. The Chinese Embassy, however, ignored the proposal on Tuesday and asked the Philippines to withdraw its vessels from the shoal “and restore peace and stability there.”

The horseshoe-shaped shoal is among the barren islands, reefs and coral outcrops in the South China Sea which have been disputed by China, the Philippines and four other nations for their potential oil and gas deposits, rich fishing grounds and proximity to busy commercial sea lanes.

Although claimant countries have pledged to settle the territorial rifts peacefully, the disputes have erupted in violence in the past, including in 1988 when China and Vietnam clashed in the Spratly Islands in a confrontation that killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers. Many fear the disputes could become Asia’s next flash point for armed conflict.

Vietnam held a maritime ceremony on Monday near the area where the incident occurred to remember the dead soldiers, state-controlled media reported.

On Tuesday, the US Embassy in Hanoi announced a five-day naval exchange later this month with Vietnam. No live-fire drills will occur, but the two sides will cooperate in areas such as salvage and disaster training as they have done in recent years.

Several rounds of talks have failed to end the impasse at Scarborough, which began April 10 when two Chinese ships prevented a Philippine warship from arresting several Chinese fishermen who were accused of illegal entry and poaching. The fishermen slipped away from the shoal over the weekend, angering Filipino officials.

The Philippines lodged another protest with China on Monday, accusing one of the Chinese ships and an aircraft of harassing a Philippine-registered yacht to force it to leave the Scarborough area. Several French and Filipinos were on the yacht, which has been conducting archaeological research in the shoal, Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

The Philippines says the uninhabited shoal, which it calls Panatag, lies 143 miles from its Zambales province and is well within the country’s 230-mile exclusive economic zone that is recognized under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China’s nearest territory to the shoal, Hainan province, is 542 miles away, Filipino officials say.

Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua acknowledged the UNCLOS allows countries to claim such exclusive economic zones but said they could not exercise sovereignty on areas within those waters that are owned by other countries. An ancient Chinese shipwreck can be found off Scarborough, which China calls Huangyan, but the Philippine research ship has no right to salvage it, Zhang said.

“We urge the archaeological vessel leave the area immediately,” Zhang said in a statement.