China frigate heads home, averts new Philippines row
MANILA/BEIJING, July 15 — A Chinese frigate which ran aground in disputed waters close to the Philippines managed to extricate itself today and was heading home, averting a possible standoff with Philippine vessels amid rising tensions in the strategic South China Sea.
The South China Sea has become Asia’s biggest potential military flashpoint as Beijing’s sovereignty claim over a huge, looping area has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines as the three countries race to tap possibly huge oil reserves.
In all six parties have rival claims to the waters, which were a central issue at an acrimonious ASEAN regional summit last week that ended with its members failing to agree on a concluding statement for the first time in 45 years.
On Friday, the Chinese navy said one of its vessels had run aground on Half Moon Shoal, about 170 km off the western Philippine island of Palawan, prompting Manila to send two of its vessels and reconnaissance aircraft to the area.
“At about 5 a.m. on July 15, the frigate which had run aground in waters near Half Moon Shoal successfully extricated itself with the help of a rescue team,” China’s defence ministry said in a statement.
“The bow has sustained light damage and everybody on board is safe. Its return to port is being organised. The incident caused no maritime pollution,” the statement added, without providing further details.
A senior Philippine navy official said Manila was closely monitoring the situation around Half Moon Shoal after six Chinese ships were spotted by a surveillance plane yesterday.
“As of Saturday night, the Chinese ships are still there and, as of today, we don’t have any information if they were able to remove the ship there,” Commodore Rustom Pena, commander of naval forces in western Philippines, told reporters.
Manila says Half Moon Shoal falls well within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognised by international law.
Philippine defence and military officials say they are worried by China’s “creeping” in disputed areas in the South China Sea, a violation of an informal code of conduct adopted in Cambodia in 2002.
The two countries have faced-off on a number of occasions in the disputed waters, and earlier in the year they were involved in a month-long standoff at Scarborough Shoal, about 500 km north of Half Moon Shoal.
Last year, the Philippines scrambled aircraft and ships to the Reed Bank area after Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine survey ship.
In all, six parties lay claim to all or part of the South China Sea.
Beijing said last month it had begun “combat-ready” patrols in waters it said were under its control in the South China Sea, after saying it “vehemently opposed” a Vietnamese law asserting sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.
The stakes have risen in the area as the US military shifts its attention and resources back to Asia, emboldening its long-time ally the Philippines and former foe Vietnam to take a bolder stance against Beijing.
The United States has stressed it is neutral in the long-running maritime dispute, despite offering to help boost the Philippines’ decrepit military forces. It says freedom of navigation is its main concern about a waterway that carries US$5 trillion in trade - half the world’s shipping tonnage. — Reuters