Philippine leaders warned Monday that increasingly aggressive Chinese claims to the valuable South China Sea threaten its neighbors, and called on other countries to take a stand. The debate over how much of the disputed waters belong to China has fueled ongoing unease in the region.
"The bigger picture is that anybody can be targeted," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told ABS-CBN News in the Philippines. "China claiming everything, as having sovereign rights over the entire South China Sea, what is the message? The message is: I can set the rules for everybody."
China and the Philippines have been in a standoff over a group of islands in the South China Sea for weeks, with both sides claiming the Scarborough Shoal. China said it had withdrawn two ships from the area on Monday, de-escalating the situation, Xinhua reported Monday.
"China is ready to settle this incident through friendly diplomatic consultations," Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
Unnerved by the dispute, Philippine officials say they'll bring up the matter with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta next week, the Agence-France Presse reported. The Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations should also take a stand, President Benigno Aquino said Monday.
"The dispute has to be settled. It can’t be left hanging forever,” Aquino told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
China has pressed its claims to South China Sea outcroppings more aggressively after declaring the sea a "core national interest" two years ago.
Vietnam has sparred with China over another set of islands, last year accusing a Chinese boat of cutting the cables to a ship owned by its national oil and gas company. Brunei and Malaysia have also laid claims to the waters, which are lucrative fishing grounds and believed to cover oil and natural gas reserves.
Despite China having agreed to a U.N. convention on maritime zones that limited its reach at sea, official maps of China show almost all of the South China Sea as being in its territory, alarming neighboring countries. Even some of its own agencies don't seem to respect the same boundaries.
“The Sea will remain volatile unless China’s internal coordination problems and the legal confusion surrounding its maritime territorial claims are addressed,” said Robert Templer, Asia Program director for the International Crisis Group, which released a report Monday on the disputed waters.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: This undated file handout photo taken by the Philippine navy and released on April 11 by the Department of Foreign Affairs shows Chinese surveillance ships off the Scarborough Shoal. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs / Philippine navy