Philippines Says South China Sea Standoff Talks Moving Forward

The Philippines said negotiations with China to end a four-day standoff in the South China Sea were progressing with both sides submitting proposals and replacing ships in the disputed waters rich in oil and fish.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said he met with Chinese envoy Ma Keqing today, adding to previous discussions this week. The Philippines yesterday removed its biggest warship from the disputed Scarborough Shoal, replacing it with a Coast Guard vessel.

“We had a rather long meeting with the Chinese ambassador and we discussed at some length the proposal I sent to her,” del Rosario told reporters today without providing details. “She responded by sending her proposal to me. We will look at that carefully.”

The negotiations highlight overlapping claims to the waters, where nations have yet to agree upon a code of conduct. China considers most of the sea as its own and used patrol boats last year to disrupt hydrocarbon survey activities by the Philippines and Vietnam.

Del Rosario repeated today he wants to resolve the deadlock over illegal fishing before he travels to the U.S. on April 15. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in Beijing yesterday that his country hoped the issue would not “become complicated and amplified.”

Competing Accounts

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.

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

China has since replaced one of the two surveillance ships with a vessel from its environment bureau, Philippine Navy Chief Alexander Pama said today by phone. He described the situation as “still status quo.”

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.

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 involving a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard ships in 2010 that sparked a diplomatic row.

‘Seeking Shelter’

The Chinese fishermen were first spotted in the area on April 8, according to a 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.

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 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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