by Elena L. Aben and WSJ
Malacañang said China appears to have stopped blocking Filipino fishermen from approaching the disputed Scarborough Shoal off Zambales province, handing a potential victory to President Duterte following his visit to Beijing last week.
If the current situation holds, Duterte will enjoy an immediate reward for his push to pursue warmer relations with China and chart a foreign policy that is independent of the US, a longtime ally.
“For the past three days, it has been observed that there are no longer any Chinese Coast Guard and that Filipino fishing boats are no longer being intercepted,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abello told reporters in Manila last Friday.
Chinese vessels have long prevented Filipino fishermen from working in the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground that both countries claim as being rightfully theirs. An international tribunal at The Hague in July ruled that no country had sovereign rights to the shoal and that there was no legal basis to China’s claim to nearly the entire South China Sea.
The verdict had been widely viewed as a victory for the Philippines, but Duterte has said he would set aside the dispute to rebuild relations with China and harness its financial firepower to help develop infrastructure at home. The Philippines’ powerful fishing lobby also pressured Duterte to negotiate for better access to the disputed shoal, locally known as Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc.
Kabayan Party-list Rep. Harry Roque, who was part the President’s delegation to China, claimed the two governments have reached a “modus vivendi” to allow Filipino fishermen to return to the shoal.
But Abella, when asked if there was already an agreement reached on the issue during the President’s China trip, said that “nothing has been official regarding the matter.”
“There’s nothing official regarding that matter. But all we know is based on results, fishermen can now go into those waters,” he added.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman at news briefing Friday declined to directly comment on the reports that Filipino fishermen were returning to Scarborough Shoal. The spokesman, Lu Kang, said the Philippines and China discussed cooperating on fishing during Duterte’s visit.
“I can tell you that both sides remain in communication on that,” he said.
Duterte, who said he discussed fishing rights with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit, left Beijing with economic agreements and business deals worth some $24 billion. During the same visit, he announced his “separation” from the US, explaining afterward that he meant his foreign policy wouldn’t always align with Washington.
Since taking office in June, Duterte has raised eyebrows in Washington and elsewhere with a series of frequently coarse remarks about US-Philippines relations, often catching his own aides and officials off guard and raising questions about the solidity of the alliances that the US has attempted to build in East Asia in recent years.
US officials have said that ties with Manila remain strong and that Duterte hasn’t actually done anything to match his rhetoric.
US State Department spokesperson Mark Tone said his government was still assessing reports that Chinese vessels have left the Scarborough Shoal. “We’re still assessing. I’ve seen the comments from Manila about Chinese boats. As you said, they are no longer at the Scarborough Shoal and that Filipino fishing boats have resumed fishing in that area. So still assessing,” said Toner, responding to a question if it was a good sign.
“We hope it’s certainly not a temporary measure. We’d like it to be a sign that China and the Philippines are moving toward an agreement on fishing access at Scarborough reef that would be in accordance with the July 12th arbitral decision,” Toner added.