BY SIMONE ORENDAIN – MANILA -The Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary said Monday there are no Philippine or Chinese vessels inside Scarborough Shoal, which has been the site of a months-long standoff between the two countries that each claim the area. However authorities are still closely monitoring the region and investigating a still unexplained deadly ramming of a Philippine fishing boat.
Authorities are now looking into last week’s rare collision in an area north of the Scarborough Shoal where eight fishermen were thrown overboard after their boat was rammed and sunk.
Civil Defense Office Secretary Benito Ramos said one person among the four rescued has since died. Four others are still missing. “We continue to investigate. That’s why we decline to comment about the identity of the boat because it has some diplomatic repercussions,” he said.
A coast guard spokesman told a local news channel Monday that his office believes it was a Hong Kong boat that hit the fishing vessel, but that it was an accident and the boat did not deliberately hit it before fleeing the scene. He said his office is in contact with Hong Kong’s Maritime Rescue Coordinating Center to try to confirm the incident.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said as of Monday that the country is not blaming China for the incident.
In Manila, the spokesman for the Chinese embassy says his office is also looking into the reported collision. Spokesman Zhang Hua said the reports still have to be verified.
“The Chinese embassy immediately checked with the relevant authorities in China and was told that, up until now there have been no reports of vessel collision accident or SOS requests on the reported dates and in the reported waters,” he stated.
The ramming incident follows the months-long standoff between Manila and Beijing at the shoal.
Philippines China dispute
The Philippines claims in April, Chinese fishing boats poached endangered species in its waters, but China says it was well within its own territory. The incident saw Chinese civilian boats facing off with the Philippines’ largest warship and coast guard vessels.
China has laid claim to practically the entire South China Sea based on a centuries old map. The Philippines says the shoal, just west of Zambales province, is part of its exclusive economic zone. The zone is designated by international law as 370 kilometers beyond a country’s coastline.
President Aquino ordered the Philippine ships to leave last week due to bad weather. Chinese ships also left the area for the same reason.
Apart from the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also claim all or part of the resource-rich South China Sea.