[3rd UPDATE] MANILA, Philippines – 7 Chinese fishing vessels and 1 Marine survey ship have left Panatag Shoal, Lt Gen Anthony Alcantara, commanding general of the Northern Luzon Command has confirmed.
This eases considerably brewing tension in the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough) in the West Philippine Sea where a standoff had resulted between the Philippines and China.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) also corroborated on Saturday, April 14, information about the departure of the 8 Chinese vessels.
The Philippines, however, is still mulling its next moves after this development, DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said in a phone interview with Rappler.
“We are still talking with (China),” added Hernandez, referring to the ongoing negotiations between the Philippines and China over the disputed territory.
It was known too that the Chinese boats left without Philippine authorities confiscating their allegedly illegal harvest of endangered species.
The Philippines had asserted it was willing to allow the boats to return to China after local authorities confiscate their harvests, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a statement. Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing, however, insisted China’s own authorities would investigate the fishing vessels.
“We had later learned that the Chinese fishing vessels had left the lagoon, a development which we had been working towards, except for our not being able to confiscate their illegal harvest pursuant to the Fisheries Code, which was regrettable,” Del Rosario said.
How it started
Earlier this week, the Philippine Navy boarded the Chinese fishing vessels and found endangered species that had been illegally obtained. These included corals and giant clams, reports said.
The vessels were caught fishing illegally in the West Philippine Sea. But 2 Chinese maritime surveillance vessels, according to a Navy report, positioned themselves between the Chinese fishing vessels and the Navy’s flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar.
The Philippine Navy was told they were on Chinese territory, but the Philippines maintained the vessels were within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
China insisted they were on Chinese territory and sent 3 civilian maritime surveillance ships to prevent the Philippine Navy’s largest vessel from arresting the Chinese fishermen.
Diplomatic talks followed, resulting in the Philippines withdrawing its warship on Thursday, April 12, replacing it with a coastguard search-and-rescue vessel. This was seen as an effort to lower tensions by taking away the immediate threat of military force.
China claims all of the South China Sea as its own, even waters up to the coasts of other countries. Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim all or parts of the waters as their own. – With reports from Paterno Esmaquel II, Agence France Presse/Rappler.com