Anti-China activist and former Philippine policeman Abner Afuang ® burns a Chinese flag during a protest in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs building in Manila on July 27, 2012, amidst the heightening tension between the Philippines and China over the disputed Spratly islands. Tensions over competing claims in the South China Sea could escalate into conflict, with an arms build-up among rival nations raising the temperature, an international think tank warned on July 24. (MNS photo)

MANILA, July 27 (Mabuhay) – Only three Chinese vessels have been monitored to be at the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal as of June 25 (Wednesday), the Department of Foreign Affairs said Friday.

Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez said two maritime surveillance ships and one fisheries and law enforcement command vessel were spotted inside the lagoon of Panatag (also called Bajo de Masinloc) at the West Philippine Sea during a Philippine Navy reconnaissance flight in the area.

No other vessels – government or fishing boats – were monitored outside the shoal, a group of rocky outcrops teeming with rich maritime resources that had been at the center of a raging territorial dispute between the Philippines and China since early April.

“Hopefully they don’t add some more ships there,” Hernandez told a press briefing.

China, however, continue to block Philippines vessels from entering the sprawling lagoon with a net barrier held up by buoys from end to end, he said.

Panatag Shoal, situated well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is being claimed by China on the basis of historical rights.

UNCLOS gives maritime states the right to develop, explore and exploit areas up to 200-nautical miles from its shores – coastal waters the U.N. treaty calls EEZ of a country like the Philippines. The UN accord was signed by the Philippines, China and 162 other nations.

According to the DFA, an agreement was made in “good faith” between the two sides for the simultaneous pullout of all vessels inside the shoal last June 4. Manila complied but China reneged on its commitment and has since continued to beef up its presence in the area.

China also continued to defy Manila’s demand for it to remove its blockades at the shoal’s entrance.

The two Asian nations have faced off at the shoal for more than three months when China’s government ships prevented Philippine authorities from arresting Chinese fishermen poaching in the area, which lies just 124 nautical miles from the nearest coastal town of Masinloc, Zambales.

The standoff temporarily ended when President Benigno Aquino III ordered the withdrawal of the last two Philippine government vessels facing off with several Chinese ships at the shoal on July 15 due to bad weather.

Hernandez said Philippine and Chinese diplomats continue to hold talks on the withdrawal of Chinese vessels from Bajo de Masinloc as he reiterated his call to Beijing to respect Manila’s sovereignty over the area.

China also claims the disputed West Philippine Sea or South China Sea nearly in its entirety.

The vast waters, dotted with islands, shoals, reefs and other rock formations, is coveted for its rich fishing grounds and oil and natural gas reserves.

Overlapping claims by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan over the sea are feared to become Asia’s flashpoint for military conflict.  (MNS)