Manila: Philippine and Chinese diplomats scrambled Thursday to ease tensions and save face amid a tense naval standoff in the disputed South China Sea.
Philippine officials proposed an arrangement to break the impasse at the Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines, where a Philippine warship tried to detain Chinese fishing boats but was stopped by two Chinese surveillance craft.
The Philippine officials did not give details but said their proposal was a pragmatic way to solve the standoff. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the media.
The standoff entered a third day Thursday. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said his country's warship was replaced with a coast guard vessel but that the move would not weaken Manila's position.
He also said China deployed a third vessel, a ship from Beijing's fisheries bureau, near the shoal, and that he may ask the Chinese ambassador to explain.
"We're watching developments and at the same time we're pursuing the diplomatic track," Del Rosario said. "We're moving forward but it's still a work in progress."
China, through its ambassador to Manila, Ma Keqing, was expected to respond to the Philippine proposal at the earliest on Thursday, when both sides resumed talks.
The Chinese fishermen were not expected to be able to stay for long at the uninhabited shoal because they may run out of food and other provisions.
Del Rosario said he wanted the situation resolved before his trip to the US this weekend. He said he intends to discuss the standoff with US lawmakers if they ask for a briefing.
Philippine navy chief Vice Adm. Alexander Pama said Filipino authorities were trying to identify an aircraft that flew over the shoal Wednesday in what could be a surveillance mission. He said the situation nevertheless remained relatively calm.
While they discussed a compromise, both China and the Philippines also flexed their muscles. Del Rosario said after the first round of talks Wednesday that he warned China's ambassador that "if the Philippines is challenged, we are prepared to secure our sovereignty."
The Chinese Embassy said the fishing boats had taken shelter from a storm in the lagoon and accused Philippine troops of harassment.
"Two Chinese marine surveillance ships are in this area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests," it said in a statement. It called the shoal "an integral part of the Chinese territory."
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, but the Philippines and four other countries have claims of their own. The region is believed to be rich in oil and gas, aside from being prime fishing ground and one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
The United States said it was concerned by the increased tensions in the South China Sea. "We urge all parties to exercise full restraint and seek a diplomatic resolution," a State Department spokesperson said on customary condition of anonymity.
First Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012, 09:25