MANILA, Philippines--Chinese fishing boats have returned to a lagoon in a disputed South China Sea shoal despite an agreement to clear the area of all vessels, dashing hopes of an early resolution of a territorial rift with the Philippines, officials said on June 27.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said the Philippine government will ask China why six Chinese fishing boats and 17 smaller dinghies returned to the lagoon this week after both countries withdrew their vessels from the area as part of a recent agreement. The accord concerning the sprawling lagoon, which is at the heart of Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines, is part of efforts by China and the Philippines to negotiate an end to a territorial dispute that erupted on April 10.
A Philippine plane spotted the Chinese vessels inside the lagoon on June 27 afternoon, Hernandez said. He said five Chinese government ships were sighted outside the lagoon in the vicinity of Scarborough.
Hernandez urged China to abide by its commitment in talks aimed at diffusing the rift.
"It is important for parties in negotiations and discussion on any issue to always act in good faith," he told reporters.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The territory is claimed by both countries. Tensions flared in April when the Philippines accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone, including the shoal. China responded by sending paramilitary vessels to protect the fishermen.
Two Philippine government vessels faced off with the Chinese vessels at the shoal starting in April. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III later withdrew the two vessels, citing stormy weather, temporarily ending the tense standoff. But he threatened to send the vessels back if the Chinese ships and boats did not leave the shoal.
The shoal is one of several areas contested by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei in the South China Sea which straddle busy sea lanes and are believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. Many fear the disputes could spark a violent conflict.
Vietnam has protested a Chinese state oil company's invitation for bids for energy development in disputed areas of the South China Sea. The China National Offshore Oil Corp. opened nine oil and gas lots for international bidders over the weekend.
Vietnam Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said the lots lie entirely within Vietnam's 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. He said in a statement posted June 26 on the ministry's website that China's move was illegal and the bidding should cease immediately.
PetroVietnam President and CEO Do Van Hau told a news briefing in Hanoi on June 27 that the Vietnam-owned oil and gas company would go ahead with exploration contracts it signed with foreign oil companies in offshore areas now being offered by the Chinese company to investors.
He urged foreign companies to ignore the Chinese offer.
"PetroVietnam and its partners will continue their oil and gas activities in accordance with the signed contracts and in line with Vietnamese laws," he said.
The exploration areas CNOOC offered to international bidders overlap with the exploration contracts PetroVietnam signed with ExxonMobil, Russia's Gazprom, India's ONGC, and PVEP, a PetroVietnam affiliate, he said, adding the foreign companies have been conducting exploration in the area for many years.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference on June 27 that it was natural for the state oil company to seek bids to explore the areas. Hong said China hopes Vietnam "will not further complicate and aggravate the dispute."
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