(Adds details, quote)
By Manuel Mogato and Ben Blanchard
MANILA/BEIJING, July 15 A Chinese frigate
grounded in disputed waters close to the Philippines was
refloated on Sunday and headed back home, averting a possible
standoff with the Philippines navy amid rising tensions in the
strategically key South China Sea.
The South China Sea has become Asia's biggest potential
military flashpoint as Beijing's sovereignty claim over the huge
area has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines as the three
countries race to tap possibly huge oil reserves.
In all, six parties have rival claims to the waters, which
were a central issue at an acrimonious ASEAN regional summit
last week that ended with its members failing to agree on a
concluding statement for the first time in 45 years.
On Friday, the Chinese navy said one of its vessels had run
aground on Half Moon Shoal, about 90 nautical miles (170 km) off
the western Philippine island of Palawan, prompting Manila to
send two of its vessels and reconnaissance aircraft to the area.
Beijing said its vessel had been on a routine patrol.
"At about 5 a.m. on July 15, the frigate which had run
aground in waters near Half Moon Shoal successfully extricated
itself with the help of a rescue team," China's defence ministry
said in a statement.
"The bow has sustained light damage and everybody on board
is safe. Its return to port is being organised. The incident
caused no maritime pollution," the statement added, without
providing further details.
The Philippines defence ministry confirmed the grounded
vessel and about six other Chinese ships spotted in the area had
Manila says Half Moon Shoal falls well within its
200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognised by
"The incident in Hasa-Hasa shoal makes us nervous," Rommel
Banlaoii, executive director of Philippine Institute for Peace,
Violence and Terrorism Research, told Reuters, referring to Half
Moon shoal in the Spratlys.
"I think what happened there was an accident, but we don't
want such accident happening again because it could trigger
something that all claimant states do not want to happen there."
"CREEPING" CHINA CONCERNS
Philippine defence and military officials say they are
worried by China's "creeping" in disputed areas in the South
China Sea, a violation of an informal code of conduct adopted in
Cambodia in 2002.
The two countries have faced-off on a number of occasions in
the disputed waters, and earlier in the year they were involved
in a month-long standoff at Scarborough Shoal, about 500 km
north of Half Moon Shoal.
Last year, the Philippines scrambled aircraft and ships to
the Reed Bank area after Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a
Philippine survey ship.
Beijing said last month it had begun "combat-ready" patrols
in waters it said were under its control in the South China Sea,
after saying it "vehemently opposed" a Vietnamese law asserting
sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.
The stakes have risen in the area as the U.S. military
shifts its attention and resources back to Asia, emboldening its
long-time ally the Philippines and former foe Vietnam to take a
bolder stance against Beijing.
The United States has stressed it is neutral in the
long-running maritime dispute, despite offering to help boost
the Philippines' decrepit military forces. It says freedom of
navigation is its main concern about a waterway that carries $5
trillion in trade -- half the world's shipping tonnage.
At last week's Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN) meeting, Cambodia sided with China and prevented the
10-nation bloc from issuing a customary concluding statement
that covers achievements and concerns -- this year, that
primarily involved the South China Sea.
(Writing by Jeremy Laurence)