By Genalyn Kabiling and Charissa Luci
Has the Philippines given up its claim over Scarborough or Panatag Shoal amid renewed friendly ties with China?
No less than President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman asserted that Panatag Shoal is supposedly owned by no one, not even the Philippines.
“As far as I know, nobody owns that place. You know. These are just economic rights that we, that we are accessing,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a Palace press briefing Wednesday, November 2.
Abella made the controversial remark after China has allowed Filipino fishermen to venture back into Panatag Shoal as a sign of friendly ties between the two countries following Duterte’s four-day state visit to China.
Panatag Shoal lies 124 nautical miles west of Zambales, well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
He said there was no formal agreement on the fishing rights to the disputed shoal.
‘No political color’
Foreign affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. echoed the statement, saying China’s action is an “expression of goodwill.”
“There was no agreement that has been arrived at with China in so far these (Chinese coast guard) ships leaving or our fishermen having access to Scarborough. I would imagine as part of quite diplomacy, trying to build mutual trust and confidence between the two countries,” Yasay said in an interview.
Yasay asked critics to avoid viewing the situation of Filipinos regaining traditional fishing rights in the disputed shoal with political color.
“We do not want China for instance to allow fishermen to fish there because allowing our fishermen to fish there will suggest that they have authority to allow us,” he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that the Filipino fishermen were given access to the disputed shoal following President Duterte’s visit to Beijing.
Reports earlier said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying mentioning “proper arrangements” made by the Chinese government after President Duterte raised concern about the issue.
But Abella could not say if the fishermen’s access to Panatag Shoal will be made permanent.
“We don’t know if it’s temporary but at this stage it’s allowed,” he said. “Presently, it’s going by the friendly agreement that has been raised so we’ll go, we’ll proceed along that line.”
On reports about the continued presence of Chinese coast guards in the shoal, Abella said “nothing official” was declared about the matter.
He claimed he was not privy to the president’s conversations with the Chinese leaders.
“But the fact remains that as the president has promised, the fishermen are now allowed, the fishermen are now free to harvest in the area,” he said.