UPDATE 2-Beijing-Manila standoff deadlocked even as ships leave

Fri Apr 13, 2012 12:10pm EDT

Related Topics

* One Chinese ship withdrawn, two remain
    * Three of 8 Chinese fishing vessels leave shoal
    * Philippine navy sends ship to disputed area
    * Diplomatic efforts to resolve row proceed

 (Recasts, adds three Chinese fishing boats leaving, officials'
comments)	
    By Rosemarie Francisco	
    MANILA, April 13 (Reuters) - Three Chinese fishing boats and
one Chinese naval vessel left a disputed area of the South China
Sea on Friday, but there was no end in sight to Beijing's
territorial standoff with the Philippines, the subject of a
decades-old dispute.	
    Problems began on Sunday when Manila dispatched its largest
warship, a U.S. Hamilton-class cutter, to Scarborough Shoal, a
group of rocky outcrops off the main Philippine island of Luzon,
after it spotted eight Chinese fishing boats anchored in the
area.	
    The shoal, which is crossed by major shipping lanes, is
believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves as well as fish
stocks and other comercially-attractive marine life.  	
    On Friday, Philippine officials confirmed that three Chinese
fishing boats had left the area, but said five other Chinese
boats remained. It was unclear whether they carried illegal
catches, they added.	
    Officials had earlier said that giant clams, coral and live
sharks were illegally harvested from waters surrounding the
Philippine island of Luzon.	
     "We are watching five fishing vessels that are still
collecting coral in that area," Lieutenant General Anthony
Alcantara, chief of the army's northern Luzon command, told
reporters on Friday. 	
     Asked if the three fishing vessels which left had carried
illegal catches, he said: "I have no data on that."    	
     China also withdrew one of its three naval ships from the
area on Friday, a day after a Philippine warship pulled out to
be replaced by a coast guard vessel. Manila's move had been
interpreted as a sign that tensions were easing as diplomats
rushed to find a solution to the dispute.	
    But on Friday the Philippine navy sent a ship into the area
to back up a coast guard cutter tasked to enforce the country's
maritime laws, suggesting tensions were still high.	
    "The mandate is to support our coast guard there," Alcantara
said. "Our mandate is to take care of our own people there and
sovereignty."	
    	
    BAD WEATHER	
    The Chinese fishermen originally said they were sheltering
from bad weather. 	
    Philippine security officials had been poised to detain them
soon after they were spotted but were blocked by two Chinese
surveillance vessels. A third Chinese vessel arrived on Thursday
at the shoal. 	
    Talks between Beijing and Manila have been held on and off
since then to try to resolve the standoff. 	
    	
     
 	
	
    Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario,
who has been holding talks with China's ambassador Ma Keqing,
said he did not believe the Chinese boats had escaped.	
    "I think they just went out of the lagoon because nobody was
keeping them there," he told reporters. 	
    "Our Philippine fishing boats, and Chinese fishing boats are
going in and out of that lagoon," Del Rosario said. "What I'm
saying is that there is freedom of ingress and egress."	
    The fact that the boats left without being intercepted by
Philippine authorities could be a diplomatic tactic, Alcantara
suggested.  	
    Beijing is asserting its sovereignty over the entire South
China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and
Taiwan continue to claim that portions belong to them.	
    Del Rosario said both sides put forward proposals to resolve
the dispute, but that no agreement had been reached. He gave no
details on the proposals, but said he would meet again with
China's ambassador on Friday evening. 	
    
    APPEAL FOR CALM	
    The overseas edition of Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece
the People's Daily called for calm, accusing unnamed Western
countries and media of exaggerating the seriousness of the
situation to sow discord between China and its neighbours.	
    "China does not want to see the stand-off which has
developed between Chinese and Philippine ships over Huangyan
Island," it wrote in a front page commentary.	
    In March last year, Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a
Philippine survey vessel in another disputed area, the Reed
Bank. In response, the Philippines scrambled aircraft and ships.
   	
    Ill-equipped to patrol waters across the archipelago of more
than 7,000 islands, the Philippines has sought closer
cooperation with its chief ally, the United States, which has
refocused its military attention on Asia.	
    Manila has offered Washington greater access to airfields
and its military facilities in exchange for more equipment and
frequent training to enhance its military
capability. 	
    Philippine and U.S. forces are due to hold a military
exercise near the Reed Bank this month.	
	
 (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by
Andrew Osborn)
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