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Philippines, China dispatch more civilian vessels to disputed Panatag Shoal

The Panatag Shoal standoff remains unresolved as China and the Philippines deploy more non-military boats to the area, 230 kilometers from Zambales province, but Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters Thursday the goal is to try and resolve the dispute before the weekend.

"We are pursuing the diplomatic track in terms of coming to a resolution on the issue," said Del Rosario told reporters.

The Philippines had been hopeful of resolving the issue by Thursday, but that appeared now unlikely, according to the Philippine official.

"Yesterday, I was hopeful that we would arrive at a conclusion... I guess that didn't come about," he said.

"So I guess the next milestone is to try and get this done before the weekend."

Del Rosario, who has been leading the negotiations for the Philippines, heads overseas this weekend on official business.

The dispute began on Sunday when Philippine authorities found eight Chinese fishing boats at Panatag Shoal, 124 nautical miles west of the country's main island of Luzon.

It is also known as Scarborough Shoal, while the Chinese calls it Huanyang Island. The Philippines declared Panatag as part of its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as enshrined in Section 2, Article XII of the Philippine Constitution.

The Department of Foreign Affairs accused the fishermen of being there illegally, asserting the area is Philippine territory.

The Philippine Navy deployed its biggest and latest warship, the US-built Hamilton class BRP Gregorio del Pilar to Panatag Shoal on Sunday, immediately after Chinese fishermen were discovered there with their ships filled with giant clams and various species of marine life.

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar had planned to arrest the fishermen, but two Chinese surveillance vessels appeared on the scene on Tuesday and blocked the warship from approaching the fishing boats.

China claims all of the South China Sea as its own, even waters up to the coasts of other countries, and Chinese authorities insisted the fishermen were allowed to be at the shoal.

The standoff escalated into a diplomatic brawl on Wednesday when both governments publicly protested each other’s actions, and traded accusations as to whose presence in the area was illegal.

BRP Pampanga

Del Rosario said the Philippines decided to remove the Navy's flagship from the tiny set of islands and reefs in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea while trying to negotiate an end to the five-day impasse.

The pullout of the warship left the Philippines with a 56-meter-long search and rescue coast guard vessel as its only presence at Scarborough Shoal.

Lt. Commander Algier Ricafrente of the Philippine Coast Guard told GMA News Online the BRP Pampanga, skippered by Lt. Commander Vincent Fiesta, was at the disputed area Thursday morning.

Citing security reasons, Ricafrente declined to give the number of officers and crew onboard the Coast Guard search and rescue vessel.

However, the Northern Luzon region's military commander, Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, said the Gregorio del Pilar would still roam around the area and that a second coast guard vessel would soon arrive.

Presidential troubleshooter

The Coast Guard was under the Armed Forces of the Philippines, but is now fully under civilian authority–the Department of Transportation and Communications, which is headed by Secretary Manuel Roxas II, who was named as presidential troubleshooter by President Benigno Aquino III.

However, the region's military commander, Lieutenant General Anthony Alcantara, said the Gregorio Del Pilar would still roam around the area and that a second coast guard vessel would soon arrive.

Meanwhile, del Rosario said the Philippines had been taken by surprise when a third Chinese maritime vessel arrived at Panatag Shoal on Thursday.

"There are three ships there now. Three white ships," he said, indicating the civilian nature of the Chinese vessels.

Asked whether the Chinese side had informed Philippine negotiators about the deployment of the extra ship, del Rosario said: "No they did not."

Competing claims to the South China Sea have long been regarded as one of Asia's potential flashpoints for military conflict.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim all or parts of the waters as their own.

The sea holds huge economic and political significance as it is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas resources, is home to vast fishing grounds and hosts shipping lanes that carry a third of the globe's maritime trade.

The Philippines accused Chinese vessels of firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen, as well as harassing an oil exploration vessel and placing markers on islets within Philippine territory.

This week's standoff is the highest-profile in recent years.
GMA News Online | April 12, 2012 | Article Link

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