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Philippines ignores China demand to quit shoal

Philippine officials on Wednesday ignored China’s demand to withdraw Filipino vessels from Panatag Shoal, declaring “that’s our territory” and warning Chinese vessels to back off.

The officials said a Philippine Coast Guard search and rescue vessel, BRP Edsa, along with an archaeological survey mission aboard the MY Sarangani and a fishing boat, remained in the area, facing off  two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels and a fishing boat.

On Monday, China demanded that all Filipino vessels clear the area, which it calls Huangyan Island and which is known internationally as Scarborough Shoal, and sent an aircraft to buzz a Philippine fishing boat in the second such incident since Saturday.

“We’re also telling their ships to do the same,” Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang told reporters. “That’s our territory and we’re also saying the same thing to their ships.”

Carandang said talks between the Philippines and China were continuing. “Tensions have not degenerated,” he said, and the fact “that not a shot has been fired is already a sign that the situation is not deteriorating.”

Arbitration call ignored

China and the Philippines have agreed to settle the dispute diplomatically but have both insisted on their ownership of the shoal, prolonging an eight-day standoff on the high seas.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Tuesday asked China to bring the dispute to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea for arbitration. The Chinese embassy, however, ignored the proposal and asked the Philippines to withdraw its vessels from the shoal “and restore peace and stability there.”

The latest standoff between Manila and Beijing over disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) began on April 8 when a Philippine Navy plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats in Panatag, a cluster of reefs and islands around a lagoon.

The Philippine Navy flagship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, was dispatched to the area on April 10 and its officers boarded the fishing boats, but a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel intervened. The fishing boats slipped away last Friday night.

The dispute is one of a myriad of conflicting claims over islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea that pit China against the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Tension has risen in the past two years over worries China is becoming more assertive in its claims to the sea that straddles shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East.

Although claimant countries have pledged to settle the territorial rifts peacefully, the disputes have erupted in violence in the past, including in 1988 when China and Vietnam clashed in the Spratly Islands in a confrontation that killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers. Many fear the disputes could become Asia’s next flash point for armed conflict.

Vietnam held a maritime ceremony on Monday near the area where the incident occurred to remember the dead soldiers, state-controlled media reported.

Several rounds of talks have failed to end the impasse at Panatag, which is 872 km from Hainan province, China’s nearest territory to the shoal.

Ancient Chinese shipwreck

Chinese embassy spokesperson Zhang Hua has acknowledged that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos, allows countries to claim an exclusive economic zone, but said the Philippines could not exercise sovereignty on areas within those waters that are owned by other countries.

An ancient Chinese shipwreck can be found off Panatag, but the Philippine research ship has no right to salvage it, Zhang said.  “We urge the archaeological vessel to leave the area immediately,” Zhang said in a statement.

‘We will not leave’

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, in an interview with reporters, on Wednesday called on Filipinos to come together and let the world know that “we are being bullied” by China.

On Tuesday, Gazmin said, “We will fight for what is ours. We are in the area and we will not leave while we continue the talks” between the DFA and Chinese authorities.

Also on Wednesday, Bayan Muna Representatives Teodoro Casiño and Neri Colmenares filed a resolution condemning China and calling for an inquiry into the government’s failure to assert sovereignty over the shoal.

“We also do not want to go to war, but we must assert our sovereignty, through whatever means we can,” Casiño said

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