Manila: Manila

The Philippine Coast Guard sent six vessels that guarded Filipino fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, in the South China Sea, officials said, adding that Chinese and Philippine coastguard vessels did not clash.

“That is farthest from our mind right now,” said Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade when asked if the deployment of Philippine vessels was meant to challenge the presence of Chinese vessels in the Scarborough Shoal.

Their deployment was for “roving inspection, testing the waters” in the South China Sea, said Tugade when asked if China and the Philippines have agreed to a joint patrol of the area near the shoal.

The Philippine Coast Guard sent BRP Tubbataha and BRP Davao del Norte to the Scarborough Shoal on Thursday. It also sent BRP Pampanga as backup, while three other monitoring control and surveillance vessels were on standby, said Commodore Armand Balilo, spokesperson of the Philippine Coast Guard.

“Our mission, our purpose, is to check on the condition and situation of our fishermen in the area and to sustain what we have started, and that is to have government presence in the area,” said Balilo.

“The bottom line is, we should not make any provocative actions so as not to affect whatever diplomatic efforts are being made by the President and the government. For us, what is important is for Philippine presence to be felt in the area,” said Balilo when asked if China and the Philippines have begun a friendly joint patrol in the South China Sea.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached an agreement last October for the return of Filipino fishermen to the Scarborough Shoal, China’s foreign ministry said earlier, adding the agreement was forged during Duterte’s state visit to China last October. But China’s administration of the Scarborough Shoal has not changed, the foreign ministry noted.

Duterte opted for bilateral talks with China after The Hague-based Permanent Court Arbitration (PCA) ruled last July 12 that China’s claim of the entire South China Sea and its enhancement of rocks and shoals there were illegal. PCA also ruled that China should make the Scarborough Shoal it occupied in 2012 as a common fishing ground for all claimants to the South China Sea.

Duterte’s visit to China marked Philippines’ pivot to China, the launching of an independent foreign policy, and “separation” from the US.

Scarborough, 230 kilometres west of Philippines’ Zambales Province, northern Luzon, is within the Philippines 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. It is called the West Philippine Sea.

China closed off the Scarborough Shoal — following a standoff with Philippine vessels — in 2012. In 2013, the Philippines elevated its complaint to the PCA against China’s claim of the entire South China Sea where $5 trillion (Dh18 trillion) worth of traded cargo passes every year.