MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines said its largest warship was engaged in a tense standoff with Chinese surveillance vessels today at a disputed South China Sea shoal, after the ship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen but was blocked by the surveillance craft.
Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario summoned Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing to resolve the dangerous impasse diplomatically. Del Rosario’s office said in a statement that the Scarborough Shoal “is an integral part of Philippine territory” and Filipino authorities would assert sovereignty over the offshore area.
The shoal lies off the northwestern Philippine province of Zambales. China and the Philippines have been disputing ownership of the shoal, in addition to the Spratly Islands and other areas in the South China Sea.
Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said the situation at the shoal “has not changed as of this morning. There’s a standoff.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs said that on Sunday, a Philippine navy surveillance plane sighted eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in a lagoon at Scarborough, prompting the military to deploy its largest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which was recently acquired from the United States.
On Tuesday, Filipino sailors from the warship boarded the Chinese vessels for an inspection, discovering large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks inside the first boat, the department said in a statement.
Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships, identified as Zhonggou Haijian 75 and Zhonggou Haijian 84, later approached and positioned themselves between the Philippine warship and the Chinese fishing vessels, “thus preventing the arrests of the erring Chinese fishermen,” the statement said.
Del Rosario protested to Ma, the Chinese ambassador in Manila, late Tuesday and told her the Philippine navy would enforce Philippine laws, according to his office.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately comment.