MANILA, Philippines - China withdrew one of three ships engaged in a standoff with Philippines vessels in a disputed area of the South China Sea on Friday as both sides pursued talks to defuse the dispute.
The row underscores broader tension extending back decades over jurisdiction in areas in the South China believed to be rich in oil and gas and crossed by important shipping lanes.
"China's embassy in Manila informed us they have a different mission for one of the three ships," Raul Hernandez, Philippine foreign affairs spokesman, told a local radio on Friday.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario said both sides put forward proposals to resolve the dispute, but no agreement had yet been reached.
He gave no details on the proposals, but said he would meet China's ambassador, Ma Keqing, again on Friday.
"We were able to succeed with moving forward with a few steps, but there are other matters that remain outstanding so we hope to continue to discuss this," Del Rosario told reporters.
On Sunday, Manila dispatched its largest warship, a U.S. Hamilton-class cutter, to Scarborough Shoal, about 125 nautical miles off the main Philippine island of Luzon, after a navy aircraft spotted eight Chinese fishing boats docked in the area.
Philippine security officials found one of the boats carrying illegally collected corals, giant clams, and live sharks and were about to detain the fishermen when they were blocked by two Chinese surveillance vessels.
A third Chinese vessel arrived on Thursday at the shoal, known in the Philippines as Panatag Shoal and in China as Huangyan Island. Manila tried to ease tension by replacing its warship with a coast guard cutter.
Navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said the Philippine warship was on alert and stationed at a nearby port for refuelling and restocking of provisions.
"The guidance to us was not to raise the level of tensions, if there are any," Pama said.
The two sides traded diplomatic protests on Wednesday over the row, the latest in a long list of conflicting claims over islands, reefs and shoals that pit China against the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
In March last year, Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine survey vessel in another disputed area, the Reed Bank, In response, the Phlippines scrambled aircraft and ships.
Ill-equipped to patrol waters across the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines has sought closer cooperation with its chief ally, the United States, which has refocused its military attention on Asia.
It has offered Washington greater access to airfields and military facilities in exchange for more equipment and frequent training to enhance its military capability.
Philippines and U.S. forces are to hold a military exercise near the Reed Bank this month.
At a regional summit in Phnom Penh this month, Manila sought a regional meeting to discuss the sea disputes. But China rejected "internationalisation" of the disputes, preferring one-on-one talks or with the ASEAN grouping.