PHL’s biggest warship leaves Panatag Shoal, replaced by smaller boat

MANILA, Apr 12 (Mabuhay) — After a two-day standoff with China, the Philippines appeared to blink, as it ordered its largest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, to leave the disputed Panatag Shoal on Thursday for unexplained ìoperationalî reasons. But the Philippine frigate was replaced by a smaller coast guard boat.

It came a day after the Chinese embassy in Manila issued a statement on behalf of its government demanding that the battleship leave the area.

Panatag Shoal is known internationally as Scarborough Shoal, while China calls it Huangyan Island.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the warship was no longer in the area of the rocky sandbar where 12 Chinese fishing vessels and two Chinese surveillance ships were confronted for two days by the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which was headed for Poro Point in La Union to the north as of Thursday afternoon. Panatag Shoal is about 200 kilometers west of Subic Bay.

Del Rosario said the move was because of an ìoperational undertaking.” He could not, however, give more information on the Philippine warship’s pullout, saying that his department only handles diplomatic matters.

At the same time, the DFA official also confirmed that a third Chinese vessel – a civilian ship from China’s Bureau of Fisheries – had already arrived in the area.

Second PHL ship deployed

DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez told reporters that a second ship’a 56-meter-long search and rescue Coast Guard vessel had already arrived at the Scarborough Shoal on Thursday afternoon.

Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, chief of the Armed Forces North Luzon Command, meanwhile said that the Coast Guard vessel was sent to “relieve” the Philippine Navy of its role to enforce maritime law.

“Yung ating Coast Guard dumating na sa site. Nagkaroon na ng relieving. ‘Yung ating Navy, nandiyan pa rin ‘yan. We will support them, so relax lang kayo. Hindi pa natin ginigive up,” he told reporters on Thursday afternoon.

“We are still asserting our claim of our ownership of the land, of the shoal. Maliwanag iyon,” he added.

Territorial row

The latest territorial row between the two countries began Sunday when Philippine Navy officials caught eight Chinese vessels allegedly poaching on waters near the Scarborough Shoal, locally referred as the Panatag Shoal.

The Chinese ships reportedly contained corals, giant clams, live sharks and other marine items believed taken from Philippine waters.

On Tuesday, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships sailed to the mouth of the shoal and placed themselves between the Navy ship and the Chinese vessels, effectively preventing the arrest of the Chinese fishermen.

The Philippines and China are two of six claimants to the disputed marine areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The others are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Negotiations “moving forward”

Despite the sending of additional sea vessels from both countries, Del Rosario said that he is hopeful that the standoff will be resolved by Friday or Saturday.

“We’re moving forward but it’s [the negotiation] still work in progress,” he said.

He added that he talked with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing at 11:00 p.m. on Wednesday, where the Philippines laid down certain “conditions” on the negotiating table.

“We’re trying to see if we can arrive at a consensus in terms of some of these issues that remain outstanding,” the Philippine official said.

He also maintained that the Philippines is still “pursuing the diplomatic track” to solve the dispute.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said on Wednesday that he wants a peaceful solution to the dispute at the Scarborough Shoal.

Leaving for the US

Del Rosario also said that despite the standoff, he plans to continue his trip to the United States over the weekend.

He said he will go to the US to campaign for the countryís representative in the International Court of Justice, Justice Florentino Feliciano.

He added that he will plan to meet US Senator Daniel Inouye to push for a pending act which will supposedly benefit the Philippine garments industry.

Del Rosario likewise said that he will assign someone to take over the negotiations with his Chinese counterparts in case the dispute drags on before he goes abroad.

The DFA earlier said it does not plan to ask for the US’ help in resolving the latest territorial row with China over Scarborough Shoal as of the moment.

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