Filipino fishermen thanked President Duterte profusely when they were finally allowed to return to their old fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal — known to us as Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc — last month after four years that they were blocked by Chinese vessels claiming the area as Chinese territory.
The President had just been to Beijing on a state visit and as a sign of goodwill, China allowed the fishermen back to Scarborough. During the state visit, the President had pointedly declared he was not raising any legal issue of jurisdiction or sovereignty. He was just going to appeal for the fishermen so they could resume their livelihood.
Last week, during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Lima, Peru, President Duterte informed China President Xi Jinping he wants to declare the shoal a marine sanctuary and ban fishing within the shoal, as it is a spawning area for various marine life. A spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, had no comment on the plan, saying only: “China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over Huangyan (China’s name for Scarborough) has not and will not change.”
The issue here is jurisdiction. To China, Scarborough is Chinese territory. But President Duterte wants to issue an executive order to ban fishing within the shoal.
With the issuance of such an executive order, how will China react? It would be unfortunate if China takes this move as an affront to its authority and reimpose its old ban on Philippine fishermen.
The fishermen, through Fernando Hicap, chairman of the fishermen support group Pamalakaya, deplored the other day that “it is now our own law and government, not China,” that would prohibit them from fishing. Actually, they should understand that the proposed Duterte EO ban is only for the spawning grounds within the shoal, not the surrounding waters which also teem with fish. So they should have no trouble getting enough fish.
The real problem is how China will respond to President Duterte issuing an executive order in apparent contravention of China’s claim to sovereignty and jurisdiction. We hope it will take it all in stride, say nothing about the EO, and continue to let the fishermen come. The danger is that the Chinese officials might react negatively to this seeming challenge to their authority and reimpose their old ban on our fishermen.