BEIJING—Inclement weather appears to have achieved what diplomacy couldn’t in the South China Sea as Beijing announced it was withdrawing its fishing vessels from the disputed Scarborough Shoal due to storms and rough seas, following a similar announcement by Manila over the weekend.
Nonetheless, Beijing indicated its ships could soon return to Scarborough, known as Huangyan Island in China. Neither side appeared to be budging on the underlying issue of how to resolve the dispute over the resource-rich area, analysts said.
“We hope the Philippine side can restrain its words and deeds,” a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said at a news briefing on Monday. “We will continue maintaining jurisdiction over and stay on alert in waters of the Huangyan Island.”
Competing territorial claims have led to maritime disputes off the coast of Asia.
The comments by the spokesman, Hong Lei, suggest that Beijing might keep government surveillance vessels in the area even as it was ordering fishing vessels home.
Manila said it was pulling two government vessels from the disputed waters around Scarborough. The announcements by Beijing and Manila appeared to be a continuation of at least a temporary detente that began this month ahead of a visit to Washington by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. China then said that it withdrew two maritime vessels from a lagoon at the center of the disputed shoal.
A standoff between China and the Philippines began in April after Chinese maritime vessels blocked Philippine authorities from arresting Chinese fishermen accused by Manila of illegally harvesting coral and poaching sharks in the waters.
Tensions escalated after Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said she wasn’t optimistic about resolving the dispute. The Chinese military’s official PLA Daily also published editorials saying the country’s armed forces were prepared to defend Scarborough.
Deeper concerns regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain unresolved. The sea is thought to hold vast oil and gas reserves, and includes some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In addition to China and the Philippines, Other South China Sea claimants include Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Scarborough Shoal is within what Manila says is its exclusive economic waters under a United Nations definition. China disputes any Philippine claims in the area, and says the shoal has belonged to it for hundreds of years.
Benito Lim, a visiting lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, said the drawdown of ships will help reduce tensions between the two sides, at least temporarily. Now, “they will have a more rational discussion,” he said.
“Both sides still insist they have sovereignty over the region,” he noted, adding, “Unless they can have a legal basis [for sharing the sea's resources] it will always be a problem.”
Also on Monday in Manila, Mr. Aquino formally administered the oath of office to Sonia Brady as new Philippine ambassador to China. Ms. Brady held the post previously from 2006 to 2010.
As tensions with China rose over the past months, Mr. Aquino sought stepped-up U.S. support. The two sides are in discussions over a possible U.S. military rotational presence in the Philippines as part of Washington’s pledge to focus more strategic resources on Asia.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this month the U.S. would shift to basing 60% of naval assets to the Pacific by 2020.
Washington and Manila are allied under a 1951 mutual defense treaty, but U.S. officials haven’t said whether the treaty would be applied in territorial disputes.
—Patrick Barta and Josephine Cuneta contributed to this article.
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