Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - China has made good its promise to pull more than 20 fishing boats out of the lagoon of Scarborough Shoal, easing tension in its territorial dispute with the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario confirmed on Monday that China has withdrawn the fishing boats from the lagoon.
¿Based on coordination between the Philippines and China, as of two days ago, we have received information that all (Chinese fishing boats) have left the lagoon of Bajo de Masinloc," Del Rosario said in a statement, using one of two Philippine names for Scarborough Shoal.
The Philippines also refers to the area as Panatag Shoal. China calls it Huangyan Island.
¿There are no longer boats from either the Philippines or China inside the [shoal¿s lagoon]," Del Rosario said.
The Philippines has no more vessels outside the lagoon, either, a Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources survey ship having been ordered home by President Benigno Aquino on the night of June 15 because of bad weather.
Until then, the two Philippine vessels had been facing off with seven Chinese vessels since early April, flying the Philippine flag to assert the country¿s sovereignty over the disputed shoal.
The standoff began on April 8 with two Chinese government vessels blocking the path of a Philippine Coast Guard vessel to prevent the arrest of Chinese fishermen who were collecting rare clams and corals and poaching sharks in the lagoon of the shoal, which is within the Philippines¿ exclusive economic zone recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
China refuses to recognise the zone as Philippine territory and insists ancient maps prove it owns the shoal and nearly all of the West Philippine Sea.
The standoff appeared to have been resolved with inclement weather forcing both sides to withdraw their vessels from the shoal last week until the Philippines learned that China never left the disputed area at all.
As of last week, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), China still had six government vessels outside the shoal¿s lagoon.
The six are what remain after the removal of two vessels as stormy weather made the West Philippine Sea dangerous to small vessels last week.
On June 18, Hong Lei, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, announced that ¿due to rough seas, the Chinese fishing boats are on their way back for shelter¿.
Hong also said that ¿for the safety of the fishermen and their boats, the China Rescue and Salvage (unit of the Chinese transport ministry) has sent the vessel Nanhaijiu-115 to provide necessary assistance at the request of China¿s Fisheries Administration and the fishermen."
But he said ¿the Chinese side will continue to maintain administration and vigilance over Huangyan Island waters¿.
Hong was referring to the Chinese government vessels that would stay behind at the shoal after the fishing boats¿ departure.
According to the DFA, however, ¿consultations¿ are going on for the removal of the Chinese vessels from the contested area.
Aquino last week threatened to order government ships back to the shoal unless China withdrew all its vessels.