MANILA, Philippines - All Chinese fishing boats have left the disputed Scarborough Shoal near Zambales province with the Philippines failing to "confiscate" fish harvested "illegally," the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Saturday.
In a statement following talks on Friday night between Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing, the DFA said "all Chinese fishing vessels had left the lagoon," without the Philippines getting "their illegal harvest."
Philippine officials earlier said that giant clams, coral and live sharks were illegally harvested from waters surrounding Scarborough Shoal, which both countries are claiming.
Del Rosario described the development as "regrettable."
He said the number of "white Chinese civilian ships," which had intervened to prevent the Philippines from arresting Chinese fishermen it had caught illegally fishing, "had been reduced to one." Two Chinese civilian ships had initially blocked the Philippines from making the arrests.
"I had stated that we would be willing to allow the Chinese boats to return to China following the confiscation of their harvest of endangered species by our authorities. There was no clear agreement as Ambassador Ma had asserted that Chinese fishing vessels would be subject to inspection by their own authorities," he said.
"We had later learned that the Chinese fishing vessels had left the lagoon, a development which we had been working towards except for our not being able to confiscate their illegal harvest pursuant to the Fisheries Code, which was regrettable."
He said Friday night's talks had ended in a "stalemate as we had demanded of one another that the other nation’s ship be first to leave the area."
Del Rosario said he and the Chinese ambassador "had been trying to reach an understanding on the Chinese fishing vessels along the path of our providing a gesture of goodwill in the spirit of the Years of Friendly Exchanges launched in Beijing last April 11 and previously in Manila on March 20."
He said the Philippines will "continue to monitor the situation in coordination with concerned agencies."
Problems began last Sunday when Manila dispatched its largest warship, a U.S. Hamilton-class cutter, to Scarborough Shoal, a group of rocky outcrops off the main Philippine island of Luzon, after it spotted eight Chinese fishing boats anchored in the area.
The shoal, which is crossed by major shipping lanes, is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves as well as fish stocks and other commercially-attractive marine life.
Beijing is asserting its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan continue to claim that portions belong to them.
Appeal for calm
The overseas edition of Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily called for calm, accusing unnamed Western countries and media of exaggerating the seriousness of the situation to sow discord between China and its neighbors.
"China does not want to see the stand-off which has developed between Chinese and Philippine ships over Huangyan Island," it wrote in a front page commentary.
In March last year, Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine survey vessel in another disputed area, the Reed Bank. In response, the Philippines 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.
Manila has offered Washington greater access to airfields and its military facilities in exchange for more equipment and frequent training to enhance its military capability.
Philippine and U.S. forces are due to hold a military exercise near the Reed Bank this month. - With Reuters