MANILA, Philippines—Expressing grave concern over repeated Chinese fishing incursions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the Department of Foreign Affairs asked China to “stop all intrusions and respect our territorial sovereignty and sovereign rights.”
DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said Sunday “we want them to stop all intrusions,” and stressed that amid efforts to cool tensions, Manila was still considering Beijing its “close neighbor and friend, as well as a solid partner.”
“We will continue our strategic and comprehensive engagement with China for the benefit of our peoples,” Hernandez told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
At the same time, the DFA acknowledged that the Philippines remained locked in a stalemate with China over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
“The stalemate remains. Both sides are in touch with each other,” Hernandez said in a brief statement.
He said Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario left Sunday for a week-long trip to the United States, and negotiations would be taken over by one of his top aides.
On Monday, the Philippines and the United States are due to begin joint annual war games to boost its military alliance amid fears of China’s growing power in the region.
Local military officials said some of the maneuvers would take place off the southwestern island of Palawan close to the disputed West Philippine Sea waters, but sought to downplay fears they could further add to the Scarborough tension.
“The Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) exercises are in no way related to an event like that of the Scarborough Shoal,” said Major Emmanuel Garcia, spokesman for the Philippine contingent.
“We had long planned for this and the focus would be on improving security, counter terrorism and humanitarian and disaster response.”
Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said in a statement the government hoped China would not be alarmed by the exercises.
“We are hoping that this will not result in provocation,” Ms. Valte said.
She said that while Manila maintained jurisdiction over the shoal, it remained committed to resolving the issue in a diplomatic manner.
Earlier, the DFA official brushed aside media reports about Manila’s worsening relations with Beijing, stressing that the West Philippine Sea dispute was “not the sum total of Philippines-China relations.”
The foreign office has repeatedly said the Philippine government is “committed to resolving the Spratlys conflict through a peaceful, diplomatic and rules-based approach, and to keeping the communication lines with China open.”
On Sunday, Hernandez disclosed “talks with China will continue” to ease tensions between the two countries.
But he has yet to comment on Senator Gregorio Honasan’s call for the Philippines to enlist the help of the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to stop Chinese incursions on Philippine territory.
Aside from the Philippines, the 10-member Asean includes Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei Darussalam.
Honasan said the Philippines should not consider as a victory the withdrawal of the Chinese fishing vessels from the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, because they got to keep their illegal catch.
Honasan commended the DFA for trying to resolve the standoff through diplomatic means. But he warned that the incident “will not be the last.”
He said a better course of action next time would be for the government to immediately report incursions to the US, Asean or the United Nations.
On Friday, eight Chinese fishing boats and a surveillance ship involved in a standoff with the Philippines reportedly left the disputed Scarborough Shoal, easing tensions between Manila and Beijing.
But the tensions spiked again the following day after China sent back a surveillance vessel to the shoal and a Chinese aircraft flew over a Philippine Coast Guard vessel facing off a Chinese ship in the area.
It was not clear why Beijing sent back the civilian vessel to Scarborough.
Hours after reporting that all but one Chinese ship had left the waters off the shoal, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said one of the larger vessels later returned.
A Chinese ship also harassed a Philippine-registered vessel conducting a scientific survey, Del Rosario said without elaborating.
The local ship reportedly had nine French nationals aboard doing archaeological surveys of the waters in the area.
The DFA head said the latest developments came despite his agreement with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing not to take any action that would escalate tensions in the West Philippine Sea.
Del Rosario observed “there is an element that is lacking in our negotiations.”
He noted he and the Chinese envoy had been trying reach an understanding in the spirit of the “Years of Friendly Exchanges” launched in Manila on March 20 and in Beijing on April 11.
On Friday, Del Rosario said he and Ma agreed to set aside diplomatic protests in order to ease tensions over the standoff. But that did not mean the two neighbors were withdrawing their protests.
The Scarborough Shoal dispute started on April 8 when the Philippines found the eight Chinese fishing boats in the area, which is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. Beijing, however, insists Scarborough is part of its territory.
A Philippine navy warship was deployed there to arrest the Chinese fishermen for illegal poaching, but China sent three civilian surveillance vessels and took turns blocking the ship.
Manila pulled back the naval warship from the area on Thursday and the tension further eased Saturday after the Chinese fishing vessels laden with their catch and escorted by two surveillance ships had already left the area.
Crossed by major shipping lanes, the area is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves, as well as fish stocks and other commercially attractive marine life.
China claims all of the South China Sea—even waters up to the coasts of other countries in the region—is Chinese territory.
Aside from the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the waters as their own.