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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs    22 June 2012

Philippines' pullout from Scarborough Shoal welcomed by China


China yesterday welcomed the Philippine government’s decision to order home its two vessels that had been facing off with Chinese ships at Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

The withdrawal of a Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) survey ship on Friday ended the standoff after two months and one week, leaving China in control of Scarborough Shoal.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino ordered the two vessels home on Friday night as a typhoon over the Pacific Ocean and a low-pressure system over Palawan combined to cause stormy weather in the West Philippine Sea.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said there were negotiations for China’s withdrawal from the shoal, but as of Sunday, there were no signs that the Chinese vessels in the area were preparing to go home.

In a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Zhang Hua, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy, said: “We have noticed the withdrawal of government vessels by the Philippine side. We hope this action will help ease the tensions.”

Zhang was referring to the tensions between the Philippines and China caused by their territorial dispute over Scarborough Shoal, which Manila calls Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc.

Zhang, also deputy chief of the embassy’s political section, said “the Chinese side has been urging the Philippine side to take measures to deescalate the situation.”

But Zhang did not say when Beijing would make good its supposed commitment to withdraw its vessels from the shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island.

As of Thursday, China had seven government ships outside the shoal’s lagoon and 20 to 26 fishing boats in the lagoon, according to the DFA.

The Philippines had no other vessels at the shoal. Filipino fishermen have been staying away from the shoal since the government declared a fishing ban in the area in May.

China has also declared a fishing ban in nearly the entire West Philippine Sea, including Scarborough Shoal, but Chinese fishermen continue to operate in the area in what Beijing calls “normal fishing.”

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario announced the presidential decision to call the two Philippine vessels home on Saturday.

“When the weather improves, a reevaluation will be made,” Del Rosario said in a statement from the DFA.

Del Rosario told reporters on Friday that China had agreed to withdraw all its vessels from Scarborough Shoal. “We are waiting for them to comply with their commitment,” he said.

The government was still awaiting word on the Chinese withdrawal Sunday, according to deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte.

Speaking on state-run dzRB radio, Valte referred to Del Rosario’s statement to the press on Friday about a commitment from China to order all Chinese vessels out of the shoal. “That is what we are waiting for,” Valte said.

Valte said the government’s decision to withdraw from the shoal was taken in consideration of the safety of the crews of the two Philippine vessels.

She said there was no request from China to the Philippines to pull the vessels out. “It was to make sure the lives of the [Coast Guard] and [the fisheries bureau] personnel would not be endangered,” she said.

Asked whether the government would send the vessels out again should China refuse to leave Scarborough Shoal, Valte said she had no answer. But, quoting Del Rosario, she said, “Once [the] weather improves, there will be a reevaluation.”

The DFA, Office of the President, Department of National Defence, Coast Guard and the military will do the reevaluation.

Asked why a reevaluation was needed when bad weather was the reason for ordering the Philippine vessels home, Valte said there was a need to look into “what sort of presence” in the area was required. Scarborough Shoal is not the only part of the Philippine coastline that needs to be watched, she said.

The defence department on Sunday said that the withdrawal would not weaken the Philippines’ position in its sovereignty claim over Scarborough Shoal.

Peter Galvez, DFA spokesperson, said that if the “only concern” was a watch in the area, “there are many ways of monitoring.”

He said the safety of the two vessels’ crews was “paramount.”

Last week, the Philippines and China repositioned some ships stationed at the shoal, easing tensions that had been building up since early April.

The standoff began when Chinese ships blocked Philippine vessels in the area on April 8 to prevent the arrest of Chinese fishermen caught poaching sharks and collecting rare clams and corals in the lagoon.

Following consultations, Beijing moved two government ships out of the lagoon. The Philippine government ordered the fisheries bureau vessel to move out of the lagoon.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda called the coordinated movements “a step in the right direction.”

“This is an easing of tensions and we appreciate the gesture of both parties to deescalate tensions,” Lacierda said.

There was no word from the Chinese Embassy in Manila about the next Chinese move.

The weather improved a bit as Typhoon “Butchoy” continued to move away from the Philippines. But as of press time, there were no reports about the Chinese vessels leaving Scarborough Shoal.

Two weeks ago, Liu Weimin, the spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry, reiterated Beijing’s position that the shoal “is China’s inherent territory, which has never been disputed.”

“China’s position on defending its territorial integrity is firm and steadfast,” Liu said. “The Chinese side urges the Philippine side to concretely respect China’s territorial sovereignty and withdraw Philippine ships from the Huangyan Island waters as soon as possible,” Liu said.

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