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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs    18 June 2012

China pulling out ships from disputed shoal


China has expressed its intention to withdraw its vessels from the lagoon at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said yesterday.

“The Chinese still have vessels in the lagoon and we’re waiting for them to remove those vessels from that area,” Del Rosario told reporters at Manila Peninsula Hotel in Makati City in Metro Manila.

Del Rosario spoke to reporters on the sidelines at the signing of the agreed minutes of the 2nd Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) with visiting Burmese Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin.

China committed to withdraw its vessels “a couple of days ago,” Del Rosario said.

But would China honor its commitment?

“That’s precisely what we’re waiting for,” Del Rosario said. “We’re waiting for them to meet their commitment to remove their vessels from the lagoon.”

Citing reports from the Philippine Coast Guard, Del Rosario said there were 20 to 26 fishing boats inside the lagoon as of Thursday.

Situation stable
“According to the Coast Guard, the situation in the area remains the same … stable,” he said.

He said the Philippines no longer had any vessel inside the lagoon.

But the Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel remained outside the lagoon.

Raul Hernandez, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, said that as of Thursday, China had seven government vessels outside the lagoon.

When those vessels will go home is still under negotiation, Hernandez said.

Del Rosario said he had no information about the Chinese jetfighter that reportedly flew over Scarborough Shoal earlier this week.

“It was validated that there was one plane that passed by and my information was that it was our own reconnaissance that did that,” Del Rosario said. “I don’t have any information on the fighter jet.”

China had yet to comment on the latest information from Del Rosario as of Friday, but China foreign ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin said in an article posted on the Chinese government website on Thursday that Chinese fishing boats were doing “normal fishing” in Huangyan Island waters in the South China Sea, and “Chinese government vessels will continue to provide management and services for its fishing ships and fishermen.”

Huangyan Island is China’s name for Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines calls Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag Shoal.

“The general situation tends to ease,” Liu said. “China hopes the Philippines will not take moves that will complicate and magnify the situation.”

Liu said China had noted remarks made by President Aquino in an event held on Wednesday to commemorate China-Philippines bilateral relations. He said the remarks included words on easing tensions over competing claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea.

According to Liu, President Aquino stressed the importance he attached to bilateral ties, and China also valued those relations.

“China hopes for concerted efforts by the two countries to push forward healthy development of the ties,” Liu said.

But President Aquino, in his speech on Wednesday, also upheld Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity in the West Philippine Sea by speaking about Philippine and international laws.

Liu said China had taken note of Aquino’s stance, but he pointed out that Philippine authorities had confirmed on many occasions that Huangyan Island was not within Philippine territory under the country’s laws.

Liu said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea did not constitute international law defining territorial claims.

“Therefore, it is undoubted that China owns sovereignty over Huangyan Island,” he said.

Meanwhile, Del Rosario said he and the Myanmar foreign minister discussed the standoff at Scarborough Shoal, now running into its second month.

“We discussed it,” Del Rosario said. “Essentially we’re saying that we’re out to defuse the situation. We want to break the impasse and we’re in consultations directly with China to do this.”

Del Rosario did not directly say if the Philippines sought Burma’s help, but he said Burma had committed to review the fundamental elements that the Philippines submitted for the drafting of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea “for possible support.”

“We’re trying to undertake this on a bilateral consultation directly with China,” Del Rosario said. “We just explained (to Burmese officials) the situation just for their information. Of course, any form of support or assistance is welcome. We could benefit from the support of other countries.”

Myanmar for settlement
Del Rosario said the Burmese officials favoured settling the dispute through peaceful means, and they approved of bilateral consultations.
He said he hoped the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) would be able to help through the finalisation of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

“We said that we are interested in moving forward the basic elements that we introduced for that [code] and we hope that [Burma] will support it,” Del Rosario said. “We’re trying our best to move it forward and we’re seeking the assistance and support of other members of Asean in order to be able to accomplish this,” he added.

During the Asean Summit in Cambodia in April, the Philippines asked Asean to take the lead in resolving the West Philippine Sea dispute, and to bring the Spratlys claimants together toward “a rules-based, multilateral and peaceful resolution of the issue.”

The Philippines emphasised at the summit the centrality of Asean with respect to the drafting of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea incorporating key elements to include a system for settling disputes and an administrative structure to implement them.

“We don’t put anything on the table that is not negotiable,” Del Roario said when asked if the elements introduced by the Philippines were nonnegotiable.

“We think that it’s a process of accommodation and compromise,” he said. “We think that a code of conduct should be substantive, it should be crafted in a way that the disputes are moved forward for settlement.”

Aside from the Philippines, Asean also includes Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei Darussalam.

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