MANILA (Reuters) – China withdrew one of three ships engaged in a standoff with Philippines vessels in a disputed area of the South China Sea on Friday, further easing tension as diplomats pursued efforts to at a solution.
A Philippine warship was withdrawn from the area on Thursday and replaced by a coast guard vessel.
But the row underscores broader tension extending back decades over jurisdiction in areas in the South China believed to be rich in oil and gas and crossed by major shipping lanes.
“China’s embassy in Manila informed us they have a different mission for one of the three ships,” Raul Hernandez, Philippine foreign affairs spokesman, told a local radio on Friday.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario said both sides put forward proposals to resolve the dispute, but no agreement had yet been reached.
He give no details on the proposals, but said he would meet China’s ambassador, Ma Keqing, again on Friday.
“We were able to succeed with moving forward with a few steps, but there are other matters that remain outstanding so we hope to continue to discuss this,” Del Rosario told reporters.
On Sunday, Manila dispatched its largest warship, a U.S. Hamilton-class cutter, to Scarborough Shoal, about 125 nautical miles off the main Philippine island of Luzon, after a navy aircraft spotted eight Chinese fishing boats docked in the area.
Philippine security officials were about to detain the fishermen when they were blocked by two Chinese surveillance vessels.
A third Chinese vessel arrived on Thursday at the shoal, known in the Philippines as Panatag Shoal and in China as Huangyan Island.
Manila later withdrew its warship and Navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said it was stationed at a nearby port for refuelling and restocking. “The guidance to us was not to raise the level of tensions, if there are any,” he said.
APPEAL FOR CALM
The overseas edition of Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily called for calm, and accused unnamed Western countries and media of hyping up the seriousness of the situation to create discord between China and its neighbours.
“China does not want to see the stand-off which has developed between Chinese and Filipino ships over Huangyan Island,” it wrote in a front page commentary.
The sides traded diplomatic protests on Wednesday over the row, the latest of numerous conflicting claims that pit China against the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
In March last year, Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine survey vessel in another disputed area, the Reed Bank, In response, the Philippines scrambled aircraft and ships.
Ill-equipped to patrol waters across the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines has sought closer cooperation with its chief ally, the United States, which has refocused its military attention on Asia.
It has offered Washington greater access to airfields and military facilities in exchange for more equipment and frequent training to enhance its military capability.
Philippines and U.S. forces are to hold a military exercise near the Reed Bank this month.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Ron Popeski)