The Chinese Foreign Ministry reported on Wednesday that on June 3, the Philippines withdrew its lone coast guard ship from the lagoon at Scarborough Shoal. Two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels that had entered the lagoon on May 30 also left, on June 5.
After nearly two months, the two countries appear to be taking fresh steps to defuse tensions over the area, which China calls Huangyan Island and the Philippines labels as Panatag Shoal. The Philippine navy originally intercepted what it called Chinese poachers at the shoal on April 10. Filipino and Chinese Coast guard-equivalent vessels were soon deployed to the area as both governments engaged in a diplomatic battle over who held sovereignty rights in the area.
However, Beijing and Manila insist that they will still keep their vessels in the waters nearby to watch over the area. Meanwhile, Chinese fishermen remain active around the shoal and do not seem to be covered by a general seasonal moratorium on fishing in the South China Sea that the Chinese government enforced at the beginning of June.
Public statements from both governments before the weekend gave no indication that they had reached any agreement to withdraw ships. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie met with Philippines Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin on May 30 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at an ASEAN defense ministers' summit. At the time, information from the two governments on what the meeting would specifically cover was sparse.
In press statements on Wednesday, the Chinese side said it hoped that the Philippines would desist in the future from provocations that hurt the rights and interests of China.
On Wednesday night, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is expected to arrive in Washington to meet with U.S. President Barrack Obama. The Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs describes the trip as an occasion to exchange views on global and regional developments, which they both deem important. Western observers expect Aquino to press Obama on further assistance for Filipino security forces. That being said, the U.S. has already stated that it will not officially take sides in any regional disputes in the South China Sea, a viewpoint reiterated this past weekend by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Singapore.
Panetta is now on the final stretches of a week-long tour of Asia to speak with regional governments on America's new plan to engage with the region and redeploy military resources there. Chinese defense analysts have argued that the new U.S. strategy is a means to boost regional allies in their disputes against China.
On May 23, Filipino Secretary of Foreign Affarirs Albert del Rosario spoke to the United Nations about the need for mediation in conflicts between larger and comparatively smaller and weaker states.
When parties are in a dispute, differences in political and economic power can often weigh against a fair, just, peaceful and lasting resolution. Mediation and other third-party mechanisms can level the playing field. These help ensure that although one party may lack in power, it can make up for it through reliance on the rule of law, said Rosario.
China, on the other hand, has adamantly resisted the involvement of a third party in their dispute, calling it an attempt by the Philippines to enlarge and further complicate tensions. Earlier reports that Japan was considering loaning Manila a fleet of coast guard ships created a backlash and wave of anger among China's nationalistic netizens.
In truth, neither China nor the Philippines has won the current standoff, and an undercurrent of mutual animosity will likely fester into the future.
The standoff has made the deficiencies of the aging Philippine navy all the more apparent, while the expansion of the conflict into the economic realm, with China cancelling tourist visits to Manila and stopping the import of Philippine agricultural products, has probably cost Manila millions. The Filipino government is eager to develop its military, but resources remain scant.
China, meanwhile, has seen other countries make moves in recognition of the Philippines' sense of being the underdog, even though it originally presented the issue as an example of Manila's aggression. The issue of disputes within the South China Sea has now been elevated to international renown, and Beijing has not walked away as a victor in the public relations conflict.