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DFA: 1 of 3 Chinese vessels in Panatag Shoal standoff leaves; diplomatic talks resume

(Updated 1:45 p.m.) The tension at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea appeared to ease early Friday after one of three Chinese ships left the area. Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Raul Hernandez said they were informed by the Chinese embassy in Manila that the Chinese ship that left had another mission. "Na-inform tayo ng Embassy ng China sa Manila na meron silang ibang mission... 'Yung isa sa tatlo na barko [umalis]," Hernandez said in an interview on dzBB radio.
In an interview with reporters on Friday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario explained the third Chinese vessel actually came to replace one of the two vessels because the departing ship was needed for another mission.
"The new vessel that had entered the area was actually a fisheries vessel which I understand would look into the alleged violations of the Chinese fishing boats," he said.
In a separate interview also on Friday, Defense Department spokesman Paul Galvez welcomed the move which he said can only be a "positive" thing.
"At least we can now proceed with effecting whatever maritime rules and laws that we have," Galvez told reporters.
Del Rosario and Hernandez said two other Chinese ships remain in the area, along with the Philippine Coast Guard vessel.
"There are two white vessels and we have a coast guard white vessel as well. So it’s back to two and one," Del Rosario said.
Breakfast meeting Hernandez also said Del Rosario met with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing at 8 a.m., but he did not immediately give further details. "Nag-uusap si Sec. del Rosario at Ambassador Ma. We think nakakuha siya ng new information from Beijing hinggil sa ating mga panukala para makahanap ng solusyon sa nangyayari sa Scarborough Shoal," he said.
During the meeting, Del Rosario said he and Ma discussed at length the proposals from both sides.
"[The meeting was] very friendly...[the] spirit of cooperation is very much present. I think 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 [but] it’s moving forward," he said without elaborating.
But he noted that "intervention [from the US] was never part of the discussion."
"We both want to have this resolved asap and we have agreed that both sides will not do anything to escalate the situation there any further," he said.
Del Rosario said he will meet with the Chinese ambassador again on Friday night, where he hopes to finally resolve the issue.
Standoff  The Philippines and China are in another standoff off the shoal this week after the Philippine Navy accosted Chinese fishermen aboard eight fishing vessels in the area early Tuesday morning. A team from the Philippine Navy's BRP Gregorio del Pilar boarded the fishing vessels at 7:20 a.m. to conduct inspections and disembarked at 2 p.m., noting that all the boats yielded assorted endangered fish species, corals and giant clams. Just as the team was preparing to implement appropriate actions, two Chinese surveillance ships arrived in the area and insisted that the Philippine Navy ship leave the Panatag Shoal, which China claims is part of its territory. The  Philippine Navy ship, however, countered that the area is well within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, which eventually resulted in the standoff.  On Thursday, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar left the area, supposedly for refueling and reprovisioning. Taking its place was a vessel from the Philippine Coast Guard, the search-and-rescue vessel BRP Pampanga. Navy commander Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said BRP Gregorio del Pilar was in La Union for "refueling and reprovisioning." "Nakaalerto ito kung anong susunod na utos," he said in a separate interview on dzBB radio. Asked if the BRP Gregorio del Pilar will return to the Scarborough area, Pama hinted it may not immediately do so. "Ang guidance sa amin, hindi dapat paigtingin ang level ng tension doon," he said. Patrols to continue
Galvez said they will continue to patrol Panatag Shoal even after the standoff.
"That’s always the standard operating procedure, its our territory so we’ll always be monitoring that particular area and all the other areas around the Philippines of course," he said.
"All our naval assets are patrolling the waters, EEZ from both sides of the pacific, eastern seaboard, and also the western seaboard and the south," he added. — with Kimberly Jane Tan/LBG/RSJ, GMA News