MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) - Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario on Wednesday said the Philippine government may have to respond to the continued stay of Chinese ships in the waters of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.
Del Rosario, in a keynote speech at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) forum in Washington, D.C, said Manila and Beijing earlier agreed to withdraw ships from Scarborough shoal.
Del Rosario said China has not pulled out all of its ships from the area even if Philippine coast guard ships have already left the shoal's waters.
"There was an agreement between the two countries that ships will be pulled out from the shoal. The Philippines pulled out their ship but the Chinese did not comply with the agreement," he said, answering a question from the largely American audience.
"We were asking them to do so and also as a manifestation of their wanting or expressing their desire of normalizing relations," he added.
Del Rosario said the Philippines is still assessing the situation.
"We believe they should do this and of course if they continue to violate Philippine sovereign rights in that area, then we will have to consider a response. We do not know what that response is just yet," he added.
Recent surveillance flights made by the Philippine Air Force revealed that 3 Chinese ships have remained in the waters just outside the shoal's lagoon.
The Chinese have also cordoned off the shoal's entrance using ropes.
President Benigno Aquino earlier ordered the withdrawal of two government ships from the shoal near Zambales last June due to bad weather.
The Palace said it is considering sending back the ships but there is no final decision on the matter.
In his prepared speech, del Rosario told participants of the CSIS forum that was livestreamed online that the Philippines' diplomatic channels with China remain open.
He also cited the 2 countries' long historical and cultural ties.
"We have friendships with other countries that have their own special characteristics. We have long-standing ties with China, and extensive historical people-to-people links," he said "The President’s family for example, traces their roots to an ancestor from Fujian province in China. China is our third largest trading partner, and investments from both sides remain robust."
Del Rosario acknowledged that the Philippines and China "are at a very challenging period" in their relations.
However, he stressed that "the issue in the West Philippine Sea does not constitute the sum total of our relations with China."
"While we are working to strengthen other areas of the bilateral relations, we will not hesitate to speak out to protect our legitimate national interests," he added.
"Nonetheless, the West Philippine Sea remains focus of concern for the Philippines, for the region and for international community. The West Philippine Sea is naturally a core national interest of the Philippines," he said. "As we have maintained many times before, a rules-based approach is the only legitimate and viable way to address the West Philippine Sea issue."
Minimum defense posture
He said that with the help of the United States, the Philippines is building its minimum defense level posture to secure its territory.
"Good fences make good neighbors," he said, referring to the disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
He said Manila is focused on a peaceful and rules-based approach in its territorial dispute with China.
The DFA chief also outlined the Philippines' 3-track approach to its dispute with China, which are political, diplomatic, and legal tracks.
"Let us not be prisoners to old conflict. We can see a new era of diplomatic resolution," he said.
He also told the forum participants that the Philippines welcomes the US' pivot in the Asia-Pacific. "We believe the US is a balancing factor in the region in promoting security and peace."
Del Rosario did not mention the row caused by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who allegedly accused him of being a "traitor" at the height of the dispute between China and the Philippines.
Del Rosario was one of 3 Cabinet officials who spoke in the forum organized by the CSIS and the US-Philippines Society that was attended by a high-level group of experts and senior policy makers.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima tackled the rule of law and improvements in human rights under the Aquino administration, while Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima discussed the government's efforts and achievements in improving the economy.