Let’s get the story straight and clear, because the facts got jumbled in all the excitement and euphoria. The wrong story was, instead of the right one.
It is a fact that President Rodrigo Duterte has delivered on his statement upon arrival from Beijing, that Filipino fishermen could soon return to fish at the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), where Chinese patrol boats had been blocking them for some years now.
Last week, and over the weekend, our fishermen were able to fish in their traditional fishing grounds.
Excited by the news, local media, on the prompting of palace communications people, reported that Chinese boats had quit Panatag, leaving Filipinos to fish at their leisure.
Within a day of this report, however, came a rude awakening. Our department of National Defense learned on Sunday that in fact, Chinese coastguard ships were still patrolling the shoal, although they were not blocking Filipinos from fishing in the area.
.A Defense Department spokesman issued a statement to clarify the situation. He said the fishermen who visited the shoal on Saturday still saw Chinese coastguard ships there.
He said: “Filipino fishermen, who have been to Bajo de Masinloc, (the local name for Scarborough Shoal) say that they have observed an undetermined number of Chinese white ships in the area but (the Filipinos) were not subjected to any harassment by these vessels and they were able to fish in peace.”
In short, the Chinese ships never left the shoal. They remain totally in control of Scarborough shoal which they seized from the Philippine Navy in 2012, and to which China has deployed large fishing fleets.
Despite the success of DU30’s China visit, he could not persuade the Chinese to pull out their boats from the area.
An even larger fact that must not be overlooked is that Scarborough lies within the 200-mile economic zone of the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As such, we should have control over the area.
Finally, it needs stressing that our interest in Scarborough is by no means limited to fishing rights. There are other considerations at issue here.
President Duterte never got to discuss this matter with Chinese leaders in Beijing, because they restricted the discussions.
China has given no indication of recognizing Philippine rights over Scarborough, or of dropping its claim to it.
It is in this light that we believe it is important for President Duterte and his foreign policy team to serve notice on China that we fully intend to exercise our rights in the South China Sea, which have been resoundingly affirmed by the permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in July this year.
In its verdict, the court ruled that China’s claims to all of the SCS, based on a nine- dash-line map was not legal. We won every point raised in the hearing of our case.
Given the clarity of the arbitral award, it is strategically wrong for our government to play down this legal victory, to put territorial disputes on the back-burner, and to shift the focus instead on Chinese economic assistance.
This has the shabby effect of monetizing our rights to Scarborough and other parts of the SCS. In the eyes of the world, this gives the impression that we have sold out to China on this issue, after having expended so much treasure and energy on winning at the arbitration court.
This has the unintended consequence of validating Chinese occupation of Scarborough, and of making more difficult the reclamation of our rights to the shoal, without interference from China.