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DFA to seek clarification on return of Chinese vessels to Panatag

MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday said it would seek clarification from China regarding the return of its vessels to the lagoon of the Scarborough [Panatag] Shoal off northwestern Philippines two days after it was reported to have left the contested area.

“We would like to ask for clarification as to what happened,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told reporters as he reiterated China’s commitment to pull out its vessels inside the shoal.

Hernandez said China’s renewed presence at the lagoon would be taken up in the government’s next consultations with Chinese embassy officials in Manila.

“Negotiations and decisions always require people to act in good faith," he said. "We would like the parties to this issue to comply with commitments."

“That’s how we try to move forward with the discussion and to resolve this issue diplomatically and peacefully,” Hernandez said.

Manila and Beijing both pledged to pull out all its government and fishing vessels from inside the shoal’s lagoon to ease tensions, Hernandez said.

Weeks earlier, Philippine vessels, as part of this commitment, left the lagoon and moved outside the shoal, but Chinese government ships and fishing boats have remained inside.

Both the Philippines and China claim ownership to the shoal, which had been at the center of weeks-long territorial feud between the two nations.

A standoff erupted between the two countries on April 10 when China’s government ships prevented Philippine authorities from accosting Chinese fishermen poaching in the shoal, which Manila said was part of its territory.

On June 15, the President Benigno Aquino III ordered the pullout of the two remaining Philippine government ships in the area due to bad weather, in a move that temporarily halted the standoff.

Aquino has said that he would send back Philippine sovereignty vessels to the shoal if Chinese ships would not leave the area.

A Philippine plane, he said, would conduct surveillance to check on the Chinese presence as soon as the weather clears.

Scarborough, a ring-shaped coral reef with rocky outcrops teeming with marine life, is called Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc by Manila and Huangyan Island by Beijing.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has sent its recommendations to the President regarding the current situation at the shoal.

“We’ll just wait for the higher authorities to make a decision,” Hernandez said, declining to give further details. “I am not at liberty to divulge these recommendations at this time.”

On Monday, the DFA announced that Chinese government ships and fishing vessels have left the shoal’s lagoon.

Hernandez said the basis of the DFA’s announcement was based on information it received on June 23 that there are no more Chinese vessels inside the shoal.

Two days later, the Philippine Navy conducted an aerial survey of Scarborough and sighted six Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied by 17 smaller boats, inside the lagoon while five of Beijing’s government ships stood guard outside the contested area.

Manila said the shoal, located 124 nautical miles from Masinloc town in Zamabales and 472 nautical miles from China’s nearest land mass in Hainan province, was within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Both countries, along with 162 other nations, are signatories to the treaty.

China rejected Manila’s assertion over the shoal, saying proximity alone could not be a basis for ownership.

It said it was the first to have discovered Scarborough, citing ancient maps to prove its claim.

Apart from Scarborough, China also claims the South China Sea nearly in its entirety, including areas that overlap with the Philippines’ territorial waters.

Competing claims to the South China Sea, believed to be harboring vast oil and gas deposits, by the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan, have ignited violent confrontations in the past, sparking fears it could be Asia’s next potential flashpoint for war. 

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