MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines and China traded diplomatic protests on Wednesday over a standoff in a jointly claimed area in the South China Sea, but Manila ruled out the use of force in its enforcement of local maritime laws.
The Philippines and China are contesting sovereignty over a small group of rocky formations known as the Scarborough Shoal.
The shoal, known in the Philippines as the Panatag Shoal but which the Chinese call Huangyan Island, is about 124 nautical miles off the main Philippine island of Luzon, near a former U.S. navy base in Subic Bay.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he summoned China’s ambassador to Manila, Ma Keqing, for talks on Wednesday morning but there was an impasse because China also insisted on its sovereignty over the area. They agreed to hold another meeting late on Wednesday.
“I think the possibility of use of force is out of the question,” del Rosario told reporters, saying the president “is very clear that he wants a diplomatic solution to be in place”.
Del Rosario said China also summoned Manila’s ambassador to Beijing and a similar protest was filed over the harassment of Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea.
On Sunday, a Philippines Navy surveillance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats in the shoal and Manila’s largest warship, a U.S. Hamilton-class cutter, was sent to check on the Chinese presence.
Two Chinese surveillance ships arrived soon after the crew from the warship inspected the fishing boats on Tuesday. The surveillance vessels sailed between the warship and the fishing boats to prevent the arrest of any fishermen.
The dispute is one of myriad of conflicting claims over islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea that pit China against the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Some of the claims have drawn the United States to press China over sovereignty.
Tension has risen in the past two years over worries China is becoming more assertive in its claims to the seas, believed to be rich in oil and gas and straddling shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East.
The stakes have risen further since the United States last year began refocusing its military attention on Asia, strengthening ties with the Philippines and Australia.
China said it was talking with the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to seek a solution to the Scarborough dispute so that “China-Philippines friendly relations and peace, stability in the South China Sea are well preserved”.
A statement issued by the Chinese embassy said 12 fishing boats had taken shelter from harsh weather in a lagoon. It said the Philippine “gunboat” blocked the lagoon entrance, preventing the Chinese surveillance vessels from “fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests”.
It said the embassy immediately contacted the DFA and “reiterated China’s sovereignty over Huangyan Island, (and) urged the Philippine side to stop immediately their illegal activities and leave this area”.
In an earlier move to ease tensions, a Philippine military commander said a coast guard ship was on its way to the area to assist the warship, saying the navy should not be involved in the enforcement of maritime laws.
“We have authority to confiscate them and bring the ships here. We’ve done that in the past,” Lieutenant General Anthony Alcantara told reporters.
On Tuesday, Chinese state media said a Chinese cruise ship, the Scent of Princess Coconut, had completed a trial voyage to the Paracel Islands, a cluster of close to 40 islets, outcrops and reefs that both Vietnam and China claim.
The proposal to open the Paracels, known as the Xisha islands in Chinese, to tourism and the Scarborough stand-off indicate a worsening of friction.
In March 2011, Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine research vessel, prompting Manila to scramble planes and ships to a dispute in the Reed Bank area. That incident prompted Manila to seek closer ties with Washington and the two sides will stage war games around the Reed Bank this month.
A foreign ministry statement said the shoal was within the Philippines exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. On Tuesday, a Philippine Navy team inspected the Chinese fishing boats and found illegally collected coral, giant clams and live sharks in one vessel.
At a regional summit in Phnom Penh this month, the Philippines sought a regional meeting to discuss the disputes. China has rejected “internationalization” of the disputes, preferring to discuss them bilaterally or with the ASEAN regional grouping.
Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Ron Popeski & Kim Coghill