Philippines Warship, Chinese Vessels in China Sea Standoff

Posted April 11th, 2012 at 5:45 am (UTC-5)
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A tense maritime standoff between China and the Philippines showed few signs of cooling on Wednesday, with each side accusing the other of violating its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.

The standoff began Tuesday when two Chinese surveillance vessels blocked a Philippine warship from arresting a group of Chinese fishermen near a disputed shoal about 230 kilometers off the main Philippine island of Luzon.

The incident prompted Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario to hold crisis talks Wednesday with Ma Keqing, the Chinese ambassador in Manila.

Following the meeting, Rosario said the sides are looking to resolve the issue diplomatically, but warned that the Philippines is “prepared to secure our sovereignty” if challenged.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in Manila released a statement accusing the Philippine Navy of harassing the Chinese fishermen and taking part in “illegal activities.”

Both countries claim ownership of the shoal, which is known as Panatag in the Philippines, and as Huangyan Island in China.

The Philippine foreign ministry says the Chinese fishing boats were first noticed Sunday by Manila's flagship naval vessel, the U.S.-built Gregorio del Pilar.

Manila says the two Chinese surveillance ships on Tuesday positioned themselves between the warship and the Chinese fishing boats, “preventing the arrest of the erring fishermen.”

The Chinese Embassy statement says the fishing boats were simply taking shelter near the island due to inclement weather. It said the two surveillance ships were taking action to safeguard “Chinese national maritime interests and rights.”

Tensions in the region have risen in recent years as China becomes increasingly assertive about its claims over the entire 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, which is thought to be rich in oil and gas.

There has been a series of run-ins involving fishermen, military patrols, and other vessels in the disputed waterway, parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Ralp Cossa, a security analyst at the Pacific Forum in Hawaii, says the situation is not likely to improve in the near future. But he also tells VOA that he does not foresee any major military escalation, either.

“No one really wants a dust up, and no one really wants a crisis. But no one wants to back down, either. And that's, of course, part of the problem, is that each country wants to enforce its claims.”

This week's dispute between the Philippines and China is the most dangerous confrontation between the two sides in recent years, and comes just after the countries said they had been working to lower tensions over the contested territory.