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Tensions over disputed island appear to ease

By Stan Grant and Paul Armstrong, CNN
updated 5:02 PM EDT, Thu May 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Manila says diplomats "are endeavoring to undertake a new diplomatic initiative"
  • China and the Philippines have been involved in a standoff since April 10
  • Navy accuses Chinese boats of fishing illegally in waters off the Scarborough Shoal
  • Both countries claim the shoal, known by China as Huangyan, in the South China Sea

(CNN) -- A tense standoff between China and the Philippines that has been under way since April 10, when the Philippines Navy accused Chinese boats of fishing illegally off the Scarborough Shoal, appeared to ease somewhat Friday.

In Manila, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said that Philippine diplomats "are endeavoring to undertake a new diplomatic initiative, which we hope will help defuse the situation."

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that China had noted the remarks as well as the action taken by the Philippine Foreign Ministry and noticed the resumption of diplomatic contact between the Philippine Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

Map: Scarborough Shoal  Map: Scarborough Shoal
Map: Scarborough ShoalMap: Scarborough Shoal

The diplomatic chafing that preceded those statements centered on the Scarborough Shoal, some 130 miles (200 kilometers) from the Philippine island of Luzon.

A Chinese military newspaper had warned that the country's armed forces would not allow anyone to challenge China's sovereignty over the tiny island outcrop in the South China Sea.

Philippine navy sailors attempted to arrest the crew but were blocked by Chinese surveillance vessels deployed in the area.

Both countries claim the shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island. Analysts believe the area is rich in mineral resources, natural gas and oil.

South China Sea: Asia's most dangerous waters

"We want to say that anyone's attempt to take away China's sovereignty over Huangyan Island will not be allowed by the Chinese government, people and armed forces," said a report in the PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the People's Liberation Army of China, said Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

"Don't attempt to take away half an inch of China's territory," it warned.

This week, an editorial in China's state-run Global Times said the international community should not to be "completely surprised" if the standoff escalates into a military clash.

Peace will be a luxury if tensions continue to rise.
Global Times

"Peace will be a luxury if tensions continue to rise," it added.

The menacing tone appeared to echo the tone in comments from China's Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying following a meeting Monday with Alex Chua, Charge D'affaires of the Philippine Embassy in Beijing.

Fu said China was not optimistic about the situation, and that China was prepared to respond to any escalation, Xinhua said in a statement.

Fu added that Chinese vessels would remain on alert around Huangyan because of continuing provocation by the Philippine side, and that Chinese fishermen would be provided with "a positive environment to operate in their traditional fishing area."

Meanwhile, Chinese officials on Thursday accused Manila of inciting its people to take to the streets to demonstrate against China.

Planned protests prompted Beijing to advise its citizens there to remain indoors, and Chinese travel agencies suspended tours to the Philippines, state media reported.

"The Philippines has been repeatedly making strong-worded remarks over the Huangyan Island," said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei.

"China hopes the Philippines will not take any actions to magnify the dispute in a way that may affect the relationship between the two countries.

"China remains unchanged in insisting on diplomatic dialogue to solve the Huangyan Island dispute. We urge the Philippine side to make a positive response, and move back on the right track."

Beijing and Manila were adamant their territorial arguments were justified.

"They both have claims," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the North East Asia project director and China adviser for the International Crisis Group. "China goes back centuries, but the Philippines also says it has maps from the 18th century showing it belongs them."

The Philippine government, which says the islands are inside its 200-nautical mile exclusion zone, wants to resolve the dispute through international negotiation, Kleine-Ahlbrandt told CNN.

But she said China rejects this as it has a long-standing distrust of Western-dominated mediators.

"There are a dozen ships in a standoff there right now," she said. "Both sides are really using this for all it is worth, whipping up nationalistic sentiment -- what is needed is something to de-escalate the situation."

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