China's view of the South China Sea.
China has pulled back two of its three coast guard ships involved in the two-week long stand-off with the Philippines off the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China) in disputed waters of the South China Sea. State media, quoting a Chinese embassy spokesman in Manila, says the two withdrawn vessels include the Yuzheng-310, China’s most advanced fisheries patrol ship and which had arrived in the area late last week as a show of force.
The increasingly prickly incident started on April 10 after a Filippino Navy cutter attempted to detain a dozen Chinese trawlers for alleged illegal fishing. The de-escalation comes despite little progress being made on the diplomatic front.
Update: China continues to reiterate its historical claim to the shoal, whose location is shown on the map, above, with the Philippines conspicuous by its absence. On Monday, Beijing denounced Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario’s call for other countries to take a stand against China’s maritime territorial claims. On Tuesday, it rejected his assertion that its territorial claims may threaten freedom of navigation in the region.
The standoff between China and the Philippines in disputed South China Sea waters off the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China) has ratcheted up a notch with the arrival of the Yuzheng-310 (left), China’s most advanced fisheries patrol vessel, to “protect China’s sea rights and ensure the safety of Chinese fishermen”. The vessel is no stranger to such duty, having done the same in waters disputed with Japan in the East China Sea off the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands to China).
This latest incident started when a Filippino Navy cutter attempted to detain a dozen Chinese trawlers on April 10th for what Manila said was illegal fishing in its waters. While Manila swapped out its warship for a coast guard vessel and released the trawlers, it has refused China’s demand to withdraw from what Beijing says is Chinese territory. The arrival of the 2,580-tonne Yuzheng-310 to support the two Chinese coast guard vessels already there is being taken as a test of how far Beijing will push its increasingly assertive territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea. Protests have been staged outside the Chinese embassy in Manila, while hackers claiming to be from China briefly defaced the home page of the Philippines’ leading university with a message asserting China’s territorial maritime claims, all highlighting concerns that the increasingly testy incident could spin out of control.
As well as the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims on parts of the South China Sea, which China claims nearly in its entirety. (The BBC has this map of who claims what and where the claims overlap.)
The Philippines bases its claim to the Scarborough Shoal on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing has rejected Manila’s latest proposals to take the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for adjudication. It wants any settlement to be a bilateral one between governments, reckoning it holds the upper hand. Meanwhile it has beefed up its patrols in the South China Sea to underline the point.