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Philippines Swaps Out Warship in Push to End China Sea Standoff

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario  said he wants to resolve the deadlock over illegal fishing before he travels to the U.S. on April 15. Photographer: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said he wants to resolve the deadlock over illegal fishing before he travels to the U.S. on April 15. Photographer: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

The Philippines replaced its biggest warship with a Coast Guard vessel as it pushes to end a three-day standoff with Chinese authorities in the South China Sea, where the countries are competing for oil, gas and fish.

The smaller Philippine ship “relieved” the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a Naval vessel obtained from the U.S. last year, from the disputed Scarborough Shoal, Armed Forces Northern Luzon commander Lieutenant General Anthony Alcantara told reporters. China today reiterated that its two ships were not military vessels and were providing protection for fishermen that the Philippines wants to arrest.

The Philippines submitted a proposal to resolve the standoff, Raul Hernandez, a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department, told reporters in Manila today. “The ball is now in their court,” he said.

The conflict is the latest stemming from overlapping claims in the South China Sea as countries fail to agree on how to implement a set of rules for operating in the waters. China claims most of the sea as its own and used patrol boats last year to disrupt hydrocarbon survey activities by the Philippines and Vietnam.

“We hope that this issue does not become complicated and amplified,” China Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in Beijing today.

Travel Plans

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said he wants to resolve the deadlock over illegal fishing before he travels to the U.S. on April 15. Talks with Chinese envoy Ma Keqing, whom he last met yesterday at 11 p.m., are “moving forward,” he told reporters in Manila today.

“There’s some urgency if she wants to negotiate with me,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I want to get it done before I leave.”

The Philippines and China have issued competing accounts of the confrontation. While the Philippines said Chinese ships had prevented it from arresting fisherman on its territory, China said the Philippines had illegally blocked the passage of ships seeking shelter from rough weather.

“We are working on a resolution on a diplomatic level,” Philippine President Benigno Aquino told reporters in Manila yesterday. “No one will benefit if violence breaks out.”

Giant Clams, Sharks

Philippine personnel attempting to arrest Chinese fishermen aboard eight boats for illegal catches of giant clams and live sharks were blocked by two marine surveillance ships, the foreign affairs department in Manila said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. The two Chinese ships are safeguarding Chinese national maritime rights and interests, the Chinese embassy in the Philippines said in a statement.

“It’s the law of physics: two competing parties cannot occupy the same space at the same time,” said Carlyle Thayer, a politics professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra. “The danger now that this has been publicized is growing nationalism in the Philippines that leads to greater resolve for the Philippines to take action.”

Chinese patrols last year chased away a ship working for Forum Energy Plc off the Philippines. Confrontations with Chinese fisherman have occurred in other waters as well, and have involved the region’s largest economies.

South Korea, Japan

A South Korean Coast Guard member died in December after he was stabbed by a Chinese sailor during an operation to seize an illegal fishing boat in the Yellow Sea. Japan has protested over several incidents in the East China Sea, including the collision of a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard ships in 2010 that sparked a diplomatic row.

The Chinese fishermen were first spotted in the area on April 8, according to the Philippine statement, which referred to the waters as “an integral part of Philippine territory.” The Philippine ship on April 10 blocked the entrance to a lagoon where 12 fishing boats were seeking shelter, according to the Chinese embassy in Manila.

U.S. Treaty

The U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines and has boosted military relations with Vietnam in recent years. Both countries reject China’s map of the South China Sea as a basis for joint development of oil and gas resources and have pushed ahead with exploration work.

The South China Sea contains oil reserves that may total as much as 213 billion barrels, according to Chinese studies cited in 2008 by the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The Philippines said in January it’s ready to host a summit to help resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar was originally launched in 1967 as a U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton class cutter and obtained by the Philippines last year. The vessel “is deemed as an icon of the restoration of the capability upgrade of the armed forces,” according to a Philippine army statement.

The Philippines spent $1.5 billion on defense in 2010, compared with China’s $114 billion, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The Scarborough Shoal is within the Philippines’ 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, yesterday’s statement from the country’s foreign ministry said. China refers to the feature as Huangyan Island.

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