Philippines' Aquino says China breaks deal on South China Sea outcrop

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Thursday accused China of breaking a U.S.-brokered deal between the two nations on the Scarborough Shoal, an uninhabited rocky outcrop in the South China Sea.

A handout photo shows two Chinese surveillance ships which sailed between a Philippines warship and eight Chinese fishing boats to prevent the arrest of any fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, a small group of rocky formations whose sovereignty is contested by the Philippines and China, in the South China Sea, about 124 nautical miles off the main island of Luzon April 10, 2012. REUTERS/Philippine Army Handout

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim the waterway, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne goods pass every year.

Beijing seized control of Scarborough Shoal, near the main Philippine island of Luzon, in June 2012, following a three-month standoff after a Philippine Navy vessel tried to arrest Chinese fishermen found illegally hauling giant clams there.

On Thursday, Aquino said the United States moved in quickly to resolve the standoff, brokering a “face-saving” deal by asking both nations to pull out their ships, but only the Philippines withdrew.

“Now, their continued presence is something that we have continuously objected to,” Aquino told reporters in his hometown in Tarlac, north of the Philippine capital.

“There was a deal, which we observed religiously. We hope the other side will do what we have done.”

China’s embassy in Manila did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on Aquino’s remarks.

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Beijing has denied ever making a deal with Manila and Washington, a Philippine diplomat who was involved in the negotiations told Reuters, on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

China has reclaimed seven reefs in the Spratlys islands, building two airfields, ports, lighthouses radars, and other military structures, which the United States has called a clear move to militarise the disputed area.

In March, Washington warned that China might next reclaim the Scarborough Shoal, after Beijing sent survey ships to the area, although a Philippine military aircraft despatched to check the reports did not find a survey ship there.

“China is not reclaiming Scarborough Shoal,” Aquino said, allaying the fears that Beijing might reclaim the shoal, just outside the former U.S. naval base in Subic.

There have been many “red lines” in China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, Aquino added, such as harassing a survey ship hired by an Anglo-Philippine firm seeking oil and gas in the Reed Bank.

Both Reed Bank and Scarborough Shoal lie in the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, Aquino said, calling China’s actions a violation of a 2002 pact on the South China Sea between China and ten Southeast Asian nations.

Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez