The Philippines and China today traded barbs as a Philippine gunboat remained locked in a standoff with two Chinese vessels off a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea. “If the Philippines is challenged, we are prepared to secure our sovereignty [over the Spratly Islands]," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters in a press briefing today after a meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Manila. He said the meeting with Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing ended without an agreement. "We have reached an impasse in our positions," he said. After the meeting, the Chinese embassy in Manila issued a statement urging “the Philippine side to stop immediately their illegal activities and leave this area.” “The Chinese embassy hereby reiterates that Huangyan Island [Scarborough Shoal] is an integral part of the Chinese territory and the waters around it is the traditional fishing area for the Chinese fishermen, for which China has abundant historical and jurisprudence backings,” said the statement. China also accused the Philippine navy of harassing Chinese fishing vessels that had taken shelter in the island’s lagoon from harsh weather. It said two Chinese surveillance ships deployed to the area were just “fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese Maritime rights and interests.” Del Rosario, on the other hand, insisted that the disputed area, which is just 124 nautical miles from Zambales province, belongs to the Philippines. "It is clear that the Scarborough Shoal is an integral part of the Philippines. We have sovereignty and sovereign rights over Scarborough Shoal," he said. He said a diplomatic protest has been filed regarding the incident. Also in the press briefing, navy chief, Vice-Admiral Alexander Pama, said the standoff began on Tuesday after the naval ship BRP Gregorio del Pilar was sent to verify a report that eight Chinese fishing vessels were anchored in the lagoon inside the shoal on Sunday. A team boarded the ships “and found large amounts of coral, a sizeable quantity of giant clams and live sharks in the compartments.” They were about to arrest the fishermen for poaching and illegal fishing when two Chinese surveillance ships appeared and positioned themselves between the navy ship and the fishing vessels, Pama said. The two sides established communication and told each other to leave the area but both sides refused to budge. “This resulted in a standoff which is still ongoing even as we speak,” he said.
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