China deployed a third ship Thursday in an area of the disputed South China Sea where a tense standoff with Philippine vessels has dragged on, sparking alarm in Manila.
Chinese and Filipino diplomats have been scrambling to resolve the dangerous impasse at the Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines that erupted Tuesday. A Philippine warship attempted to arrest several Chinese fishermen accused of illegal entry and poaching, but was prevented by the arrival of two Chinese surveillance ships.
One of the Chinese ships blocked the entrance to a lagoon at the shoal, where at least eight Chinese fishing vessels were anchored. The Chinese ships also ordered the Philippine warship to leave Scarborough, claiming Chinese sovereignty over the rich fishing ground.
But the warship has stayed put, arguing it is Philippine territory.
Philippine navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said the BRP Gregorio del Pilar warship was withdrawn from Scarborough Thursday for refueling and was replaced by a Philippine coast guard ship. The move was not a retreat or concession of any kind to China, he said.
"We're not retreating from our own territory," Pama said.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said he will ask Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing to explain the arrival of a third Chinese surveillance ship at Scarborough, which he said lies well within his country's territorial waters and off the northwestern Philippine province of Zambales. Despite the new concern, del Rosario said he would continue talks with Ma to resolve the impasse, possibly this week.
"We're watching developments and at the same time we're pursuing the diplomatic track," Del Rosario said. "We're moving forward but it's still a work in progress."
Del Rosario proposed an arrangement to end the impasse during talks with Ma, who was expected to relay the Chinese government's reply soon, according to two Philippine officials monitoring the negotiations.
Del Rosario declined to provide details of the proposal, but said it was a "win-win" solution designed to rapidly end the standoff. The stranded Chinese fishermen were not expected to be able to stay for long at the uninhabited shoal because they may run out of food and other provisions.
Del Rosario said he wanted the problem resolved before he leaves Sunday for a weeklong U.S. trip.
Aside from Scarborough, the South China Sea is home to a myriad of competing territorial claims, most notably the Spratly Islands south of the shoal, an island chain claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. The barren Spratly islands, reefs and coral outcrops are believed to be in rich in oil and gas and the overlapping claims have long been feared as Asia's next flashpoint for armed conflict.
The Chinese Embassy said the fishing boats had taken shelter from a storm in the lagoon and accused Philippine troops of harassment. But Philippine authorities claimed the fishermen illegally entered their territory then collected giant clams, live sharks and other endangered marine species in violation of local laws.
The situation at the shoal remained relatively calm, although the Philippine military spotted a suspected Chinese surveillance aircraft which briefly flew over the shoal Wednesday, Pama said.
The United States said it was concerned by the increased tensions in the South China Sea. "We urge all parties to exercise full restraint and seek a diplomatic resolution," a State Department spokesperson said on customary condition of anonymity.