China removes grounded warship, easing sea tensions

China removed a ship that ran aground on a disputed shoal off the Philippines before it could spark further maritime tensions in the South China Sea. 

Reuters/File
A Chinese surveillance ship, which sailed between a Philippine warship and eight Chinese fishing boats to prevent the arrest of any fishermen in the South China Sea in April. The surveillance ship was one incident in a number of confrontations China has had with other Asian nations over disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Chinese navy ships safely removed one of the country's warships Sunday from a disputed shoal off the western Philippines where it had run aground while on a security patrol and sparked fears of another maritime standoff in the South China Sea.

The warship will sail back to port with minor damage, and no crew member was injured, Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua said in a statement that suggested the vessel did not spill any oil.

The frigate became stuck Wednesday night on Half Moon Shoal, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) from the western Philippine province of Palawan, prompting China and the Philippines to send rescue ships. Both countries were already locked in a tense dispute over another shoal off the northwestern Philippines.

The South China Sea is a flashpoint in diplomatic relations, with various Asian nations claiming all or part of its islands and waters.

Philippine navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said at least six Chinese navy ships, along with smaller utility boats, helped refloat the grounded frigate. Filipino coast guard vessels had been deployed near the area to help if needed, he said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said Saturday the Philippines was investigating the circumstances that led to the accident. The government on Sunday expressed relief that the delicate incident was over.

"We are glad to note that Chinese authorities have successfully extricated their stranded frigate" and that it will leave Philippine-claimed waters, department spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines did not plan to protest because the Chinese frigate and other foreign ships could sail through any country's exclusive territorial zone.

The shoal is called Hasa Hasa in the Philippines and is claimed by China as part of the Nansha island chain, known internationally as the Spratly islands. The Spratlys are a major cluster of potentially oil- and gas-rich islands and reefs long disputed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei.

Chinese and Philippine officials are still negotiating an end to a tense dispute over Scarborough Shoal, about 700 kilometers (400 miles) away, which has been continuing for more than three months. The Philippines has withdrawn its ships from Scarborough to ease tensions, but Chinese government surveillance ships have remained in the area.

The Philippines, meanwhile, said Sunday it would continue to offer another area near the South China Sea to foreign investors for oil and gas explorations despite protests from China. China claims ownership of those waters, which Filipino officials say include an area just 55 kilometers (34 miles) off the Philippine province of Palawan.

* Associated Press writers Oliver Teves in Manila and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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