MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines warned Monday that China's sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea may eventually threaten freedom of navigation in the busy region and called on Western and Asian countries to take a stand against any such potential threat.
China's ambiguous territorial claims have brought it into a tense, 14-day high seas standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, which both Asian countries claim. China's aggressive actions at the shoal — including ordering ships to leave and flying a Chinese plane low over one of them — show what it could do to the rest of the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said.
Chinese surveillance ships have told a lone Philippine coast guard vessel to leave the uninhabited but resource-rich shoal, which lies between the northwestern Philippines and the South China Sea, saying China has sovereignty over the area. The Filipino vessel has refused to leave, saying it's Philippine territory.
Only one Chinese surveillance ship remained in the area after two others pulled out on Sunday, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Manila was quoted as saying Monday by the official Xinhua News Agency.
"The withdrawal of the two ships proves once again China is not escalating the situation as some people said, but de-escalating the situation," Zhang Hua was quoted as saying.
He said China is prepared to settle the standoff through "friendly diplomatic consultations."
So far, the two sides have failed to resolve the tense impasse.
China, the Philippines and other countries have also been engaged in long-simmering territorial rifts elsewhere in the South China Sea, which is crisscrossed by one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes, accounts for about 10 percent of the annual global fisheries catch and is believed to have rich oil and gas deposits.
China has claimed virtually the entire South China Sea for years. Now, it could aggressively assert its claims as shown by its actions at Scarborough, Hernandez told reporters. "This is a manifestation of a potential threat to freedom of navigation as well as unimpeded commerce in the area."
Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said that with Beijing claiming almost everything in the South China Sea, the message is they "can set the rules for anybody."
"I think the current standoff is a manifestation of a larger threat to many nations," he told ABS-CBN TV network in an interview. "They should be concerned if they're interested in maintaining the freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce."
Del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin will raise the Scarborough Shoal incident when they meet their U.S. counterparts in Washington next week, Hernandez told a news conference, adding that the United States has been concerned about ensuring freedom of navigation in Southeast Asian waters.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin reiterated China's sovereignty over the shoal, which Beijing calls Huangyan island, and added that involving other nations in the dispute would only complicate the problem.
The International Crisis Group, meanwhile, said in a report Monday that China's deployment of more surveillance and paramilitary ships, which are tasked to assert Beijing's unclear territorial claims, risks more confrontations in the South China Sea.
The Chinese ships have figured in major flare-ups, including in the standoff at Scarborough, the ICG said.
The Brussels-based group said China has so far refused to define the exact extent of its claims, causing confusion and fostering potential conflicts.
Some Chinese patrol ships were unaware of the limits of the areas where they were supposed to assert sovereignty, the ICG said.
Philippine officials have asked China to bring their disputes to the United Nations for arbitration, a process that would require both to delineate their claims. But Chinese officials have insisted on negotiating with other claimants individually.
The Scarborough confrontation erupted April 10 when a Filipino warship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen who were accused of illegally entering and poaching endangered species at the shoal. Two Chinese surveillance ships prevented the arrests and the fishermen slipped away.
Associated Press writers Scott McDonald and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.