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MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - The Philippines said Thursday, April 12, it had pulled its biggest warship out of a standoff with Chinese vessels, but the impasse was not resolved, with China sending a third ship to the disputed waters.
"The Philippine navy ship has been pulled out," Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters. He was referring to the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the Philippine Navy's fastest ship which was bought from the US in 2011 for PhP13-M. (Read more about the ship here.)
Del Rosario would not why say the Philippines had pulled out the navy ship, which had been stationed near a tiny set of islands in the South China Sea since Sunday in an effort to arrest Chinese fishermen caught fishing there.
"That is an operational undertaking I can't discuss with you," he said.
The pullout means the Philippines is left with a coast guard search and rescue boat as its only presence in the disputed waters.
Is the pullout meant to defuse tension in the area?
Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama, whose jurisdiction includes BRP Gregorio del Pilar, said that concern is no longer within his level. “If there are negotiations ongoing at (a) higher level, I am not privy to that,” Pama said in a phone interview with Rappler.
Need to refuel
What he is sure of, Pama said, is that the Philippines is pulling out the Navy's fastest ship for fueling and reprovisioning.
He explained BRP Gregorio del Pilar has been on the Scarborough Shoal since April 10. It left northern Palawan on Sunday, April 8, and was meant to go to Poro Point, La Union, in preparation for North Korea's rocket launch. It was diverted to Scarborough Shoal, however, after authorities spotted Chinese vessels.
“They really need to refuel. The troops (have) high morale,” Pama said.
He added that hours before, BRP Gregorio del Pilar was still in Scarborough Shoal waiting for a written clearance for a pull-out.
A senior military officer who refused to be named, however, said it is possible that the ship's need for fuel became a convenient escape for negotiators to ease the tension. The pullout, after all, had to be cleared with civilian higher ups, he said.
China's back-up ship
In another phone interview, Lt Gen Anthony Alcantara, chief of the Northern Luzon Command, said BRP Gregorio del Pilar has been “relieved” by a coast guard vessel. Another coast guard vessel, a civilian ship, is expected to relieve the warship.
The Philippine Coast Guard is under the Department of Transportation and Communications.
Meanwhile, Del Rosario said a 3rd Chinese maritime vessel had arrived to back up the 2 Chinese surveillance ships that had been there since Tuesday.
The Chinese vessels had been blocking the Philippine plan to arrest the fishermen.
"There are 3 ships there now. Three white ships. The 3rd ship arrived today, this morning, I understand. It's a Bureau of Fisheries Chinese civilian ship," he said.
Asked whether the Philippine government was alarmed at the extra Chinese presence, he said: "Well, we are watching developments and, at the same time, we are pursuing the diplomatic track in terms of coming to a resolution on the issue."
Talks with China
He said the Chinese ambassador to Manila, Ma Keqing, had not informed him that China was sending an additional ship, despite negotiating with her to try and resolve the issue.
Earlier in the day, Del Rosario was tight-lipped about negotiations with China but described it as a “work in progress.”
“I think we're moving forward, so that's encouraging. But we don't have all the pieces of the puzzle in there yet,” Del Rosario told reporters early Thursday.
The standoff is taking place over the disputed Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, which the Philippines and China both claim as theirs. This happened after the Philippine Navy monitored 10 Chinese ships stationed there. - Rappler.com and Agence France-Presse