China said Tuesday that it is prepared for any “escalation” by the Philippines over a disputed island chain in the South China Sea amid a territorial standoff after a Philippines naval vessel harassed a group of Chinese fishing vessels last month.
The official Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese vice foreign minister Fu Ying as saying that Beijing is not optimistic that the two sides will arrive at a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Huangyan Island, also known as the Scarborough Shoal, which lies about 230 kilometers (140 miles) off the Philippine coast.
The island chain is known as the Panatag Shoal in the Philippines.
Fu on Monday summoned Alex Chua, the charge d’affaires of the Philippine Embassy in China, to make a “serious representation” over the issue—the third meeting between the two sides in a month.
During the two previous meetings, Fu said she had asked the Philippine side to refrain from taking actions that would “escalate” the situation.
"However, it is obvious that the Philippine side has not realized that it is making serious mistakes and, instead, is stepping up efforts to escalate tensions," Fu said in a press release issued Tuesday.
"The Chinese side has also made all preparations to respond to any escalation of the situation by the Philippine side," Fu said.
Fu said that due to “the continuous provocation” by the Philippine side, China's government vessels will continue to be on alert in the sea area of the shoal “with the purpose of providing a good environment to Chinese fishermen to operate in their traditional fishing ground.”
She said that the Philippine side has continued to send government vessels to a lagoon located on the shoal and has repeatedly “misled” the Philippine public and the international community about the sovereignty of the islands, “thus severely damaging bilateral relations.”
Fu urged Manila to withdraw its vessels from the area and to “never again impede the operations of Chinese fishing vessels or Chinese government vessels performing their duties in accordance with Chinese law.”
The standoff began on April 10 when Chinese surveillance ships prevented a Philippine warship from arresting Chinese fishermen near the islands. The fishermen then left the area, to the annoyance of Philippine officials.
China has rejected a request by the Philippines to refer the issue to an international court, dismissing any claim by the Philippines to the island chain as “baseless.”
The Philippines says the shoal is located well within its internationally recognized exclusive economic zone.
The South China Sea is home to potentially resource-rich island chains and some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It is the object of a number of competing territorial claims.
Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan have all laid claim to all or part of the disputed territories.
China has underlined its "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea, saying its claims stretch back at least to the 1930s, when official maps from Beijing contained the whole sea as Chinese territory.
Beijing’s current claims are based on a 2009 map showing a U-shaped dotted line extending from China and enclosing virtually the entire South China Sea while hugging the coastline of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
Meanwhile, oil firms from the Philippines and China announced Tuesday that they had discussed a possible partnership to develop a natural gas claim in the South China Sea, in a move that could help to ease tensions.
The partnership was discussed between the Philippines' Philex Petroleum Corp and Chinese offshore oil producer China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) to jointly develop the Sampaguita project, or "service contract 72."
The Sampaguita project was estimated in a 2006 study to hold up to 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas or more than five times initial estimates.
Xinhua reported Tuesday that China’s first deep water oil drill is ready to start production in the South China Sea.
The rig, operated by CNOOC, will start operations Wednesday in an area 320 kilometers (200 miles) off of the coast of Hong Kong, drilling at a depth of 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), Xinhua said.
The platform is situated southeast of the Scarborough Shoal, outside of where ships from China and the Philippines continue their standoff.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.