Is China pulling out of Scarborough?

MANILA, Philippines – Conflicting statements mar talks between the Philippines and China on Scarborough Shoal after both countries contradicted each other's claims on the pullout of ships from the disputed territory.

The Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is firm: both countries agreed on a pullout.

“We have been doing several consultations with the Chinese side, and in the consultations, we have arrived at the decision to pull out ships and vessels from inside the lagoon,” DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez told ANC on Tuesday, June 19.

The DFA announced the supposed mutual decision to withdraw government ships from the lagoon in Scarborough Shoal on June 5. (Read: PH, China withdraw key ships from Panatag.)  

Chinese fishing vessels remained inside the lagoon, however, Hernandez said.

“This time around, the Chinese are pulling out their fishing vessels from inside the lagoon. When they have pulled out their fishing vessels from inside the lagoon, then we can say that there are no more ships and vessels from either side from inside the lagoon,” he said.

The Chinese government dispatched on June 18 a vessel to help Chinese fishermen pull out from the lagoon because of bad weather. Three days earlier, the Philippines also withdrew two government vessels from the area due to a typhoon.

However, while it was pulling out vessels, China questioned the Philippines' claim it agreed to withdraw its ships from Scarborough Shoal.

“We wonder where the so-called commitment the Philippine side mentioned on 'China's withdrawal of vessels' came from. We hope the Philippine side can restrain their words and behaviors, and do more things conducive to the development of the bilateral relations,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei in a statement on June 18.

CONFLICTING STATEMENTS. Even two of the Philippines' biggest broadsheets carried conflicting banner stories on China's statements.

CONFLICTING STATEMENTS. Even two of the Philippines' biggest broadsheets carried conflicting banner stories on China's statements.

Mutual distrust

This is not the first time the Philippines and China questioned each other's statements on supposedly mutual agreements.

Last April, the DFA criticized the Chinese embassy in the Philippines for statements that “are contrary to reality” concerning a supposed agreement to pull out vessels from Scarborough Shoal. China had said this forced the mainland to become “more assertive” in its claim.

“The DFA pointed out that there has never been an agreement reached. The DFA is of the view that it was unfortunate that the Chinese response was based on an inaccurate appreciation of the facts and dynamics of the negotiations,” the DFA said.

The DFA said the Chinese embassy should relay accurate information to the mainland Chinese government. (Read: Don't lie to Beijing, DFA tells Chinese embassy.) 

It was the mainland that questioned the DFA's recent statement Monday.

Inside, outside lagoon

Meanwhile, the Philippines and China have yet to agree on the pullout of ships from outside the Scarborough Shoal lagoon. “We will deal with that in the next round of consultations,” Hernandez said.

“The idea is, we need to break the impasse and defuse the tension in Bajo de Masinloc,” he added, referring to the Philippines' official name for Scarborough Shoal.

The lagoon of Scarborough Shoal is crucial because it is where the standoff between the two countries began, with the Philippine Navy spotting 8 Chinese fishing vessels in the area last April 10. (Read: PH Navy in standoff with Chinese ships.) 

A ring-shaped coral reef, Scarborough Shoal is composed of several rocks surrounding a lagoon. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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