THE Department of National Defense on Friday confirmed that Chinese vessels have left the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), months after occupying the area.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said that aerial surveillance made on June 27 and 28 and early this week found no Chinese ships in the vicinity of the shoal.
“As far as we know, there are no more Chinese ships off Panatag,” Gazmin told reporters. He refused to comment if China’s pullout from the shoal had something to do with the recently concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) expanded summit.
The Philippines earlier warned that China’s military buildup at sea threatens the peace and stability in the region.
Immediately after the warning, US Secretary of State John Kerry closed ranks with Asean and called on Beijing to start talks on a proposed sea code.
Concerns have been rising that actions by China to increase its grip on disputed islets in the sea, a key corridor for regional and world trade, could lead to conflict with rival claimants.
Aseanhas been pushing a reluctant China for talks on a set of rules governing conduct at sea meant to avert unilateral actions that could spark trouble.
“We very much hope to see progress on a substantive code of conduct to help ensure stability in this vital region,” Kerry said at the Asean summit.
Gazmin said it is possible that the Chinese vessels pulled out because the area is usually battered by typhoons this time of year. He theorized that the Chinese may have been forced to leave the shoal when storm Gorio hit the Philippines last week.
He did not say if the government has taken steps to prevent the Chinese from re-entering the disputed area.
Panatag Shoal, considered to be a rich fishing ground, is a mere 124 nautical miles off Zambales, well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
China and the Philippines were locked in a tense standoff last year when Chinese ships prevented Philippine officials from arresting Chinese fishermen caught poaching in the contested area.
Since then, China has maintained a presence in the shoal, retaining at least two surveillance ships and driving away Filipino fishermen.
Also on Friday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it will not dignify the comments of a Chinese general that the Philippines is a “troublemaker” in the West Philippine Sea.
“I just talked to the Secretary [Albert del Rosario] about this and he said, ‘this is my response: We refuse to dignify the statements made by the Chinese general,” Raul Hernandez, Foreign Affairs spokesman, said in a press briefing.
Major General Luo Yuan, a Chinese military official known for his nationalist views, took a swipe at the United States and Philippines over the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
In the reports, he called the Philippines a “troublemaker” and said the US added “fuel to the fire” by supporting Manila’s actions in the region.
Luo also warned India for stirring up trouble in the long-running border dispute between Beijing and New Delhi.
The territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea, believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and minerals, have been long standing. But it wasn’t until last year that the Philippines and Vietnam engaged in diplomatic spats with China following several intrusions into their territories.
The naval standoff between Beijing and Manila at the Panatag Shoal resulted in the filing by the Philippines of an arbitration case before the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (Itlos).
Beijing refused to join the arbitration, and pushed for bilateral talks instead.
Beijing agreed to hold consultations on the drafting of a sea Code of Conduct during the 46th Asean summit held in Brunei last week, but del Rosario expressed hopes that Beijing was “sincere.”
Del Rosario and his counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had “testy exchanges” during the expanded minister’s forum in Brunei, according to diplomats who attended the meeting. The Foreign Affairs chief reportedly answered Wang’s allegations against the Philippines even though he was not supposed to speak.