BEIJING — Chinese fishing boats near the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the Philippine coast were heading back to port on Monday after Philippine vessels withdrew from the same area in an easing of tensions in the South China Sea, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
The pullback, made necessary by the arrival of typhoon season, had been expected after two months of conflicting claims over ownership of the shoal, about 140 miles west of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines.
The underlying antagonism between China and the Philippines over disputed islands in the South China Sea remained unresolved, but diplomats said they hoped the absence of the vessels would lead to a cooling-off period.
“We hope there will continue to be an easing in the situation, and hope bilateral cooperation will recover and be safeguarded,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said Monday at a regular news briefing.
Over the weekend, the Philippine president, Benigno S. Aquino III, ordered all Philippine vessels to leave the waters around the Scarborough Shoal because of rough seas and heavy rains from a seasonal typhoon, the Philippine Foreign Ministry said.
It was expected that China would follow suit, Philippine officials said, in what appeared to be a carefully choreographed withdrawal. “When weather improves, a re-evaluation will be made,” said Albert del Rosario, the Philippine foreign secretary.
At the core of the dispute are sovereignty claims by the Philippines and China, highlighting increasing concerns about the freedom of navigation and territorial rights in one of the world’s busiest waterways. Complicating the situation is a 1951 mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines that Manila interprets as meaning that Washington would defend the Philippines in case of any conflict.
The seabeds of the South China Sea hold energy reserves that are being exploited in some areas. In other areas, energy companies hope to start drilling soon, including at Reed Bank, an area off the Philippine coast that China claims. A Philippine energy company has said it plans to start operations at Reed Bank this year; diplomats said that would be a test of the easing of tensions over Scarborough Shoal.
China has shown increasing assertiveness over its claims by stressing that much of the South China Sea and its islands belong to China for historical reasons going back many centuries.
Even more threatening to Asian countries than the historical claims are the stepped-up patrols by China’s maritime fleet in the South China Sea. Increasingly, modern lightly armed law enforcement vessels of the China Marine Surveillance agency — which has been receiving increased financing — are accompanying Chinese fishing boats as they venture into waters off the coastlines of countries in the South China Sea. In a move that could further alleviate tensions between China and the Philippines, Mr. Aquino swore in a new ambassador to Beijing on Monday.
The envoy, Sonia Brady, served in Beijing from 2006 to 2010 and in other Asian countries before that.
The Philippines was without an ambassador to China during the Scarborough Shoal flare-up, a factor that officials from both countries said had aggravated the situation.
The diplomatic clash began in early April when two Chinese law enforcement vessels, a Philippine Navy ship and a half-dozen Chinese fishing boats were involved in a standoff at the shoal.
When the Philippine ship tried to stop Chinese fishermen from taking what were said to be poached sharks, clams and rare corals from the area, two Chinese marine surveillance boats intervened.
After two tense days, the Philippine Navy ship withdrew. But most of the vessels, Philippine and Chinese, involved in the two-month showdown remained in nearby waters until this past weekend.
The United States has expressed concerns about the standoff to both China and the Philippines and has urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to adopt a code of conduct that would include a mechanism for the resolution of disputes in the area.
Aside from China and the Philippines, three other countries in Southeast Asia — Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam — make claims to islands in the sea, as does Taiwan.
Bree Feng contributed research.