MANILA and Beijing have reached a “friendly” understanding allowing Filipinos to fish around a disputed shoal seized by Beijing in 2012, a senior aide to President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday.
The understanding was reached during Duterte’s recent meeting in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping, said National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon.
As a result, he said, in recent days Filipino fishermen have been able to fish unmolested at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) while Chinese government vessels have patrolled nearby.
“There is no agreement… but our president believes that our fishermen will no longer be harassed because he already brought up this matter” during his visit to China, Esperon told the media.
“The coastguard of China is there, but their navy is gone. And now, our fishermen are no longer being accosted, no longer being forced out, so we can say things are now friendly,” he added.
China took control of Panatag Shoal, 230 kilometers (140 miles) west of Luzon, in 2012. It had been driving away Filipino fishermen from the rich fishing ground, sometimes using water cannon.
Panatag still PH territory
Esperon stressed that neither country dropped its claim to the shoal, with China insisting on its “historical rights.”
He emphasized that the area is part of Philippine territory and lies within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) guaranteed of coastal states under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or Unclos. China is a signatory to the agreement.
The Cabinet official cited the July 12 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague that there was no legal basis for Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea.
The Philippines however acknowledges that China has historical rights to the area in the same way that the Philippines asserts its own historical rights to the “traditional fishing ground,” Esperon said.
The government, he said, would continue to assert the Philippine claim, but not now.
“When we go to another round of talks we will again assert it,” Esperon said.
Climate has changed
Nonetheless the “climate has changed” as far as Manila-Beijing relations are concerned, he said.
“We are back to traditional fishing grounds, it’s as if its been recognized as a traditional fishing ground. That’s what is prevailing right now … there is no talk on territorial rights, there is no talk on assertion of rights, but they respect our traditional rights,” said Esperon.
He said Duterte and Xi decided to sidestep the dispute to repair frayed ties during the Philippine leader’s state visit to China last month.
Esperon said Duterte’s position was that the Philippines also had historical rights to the area, which was bolstered by the international tribunal ruling in July.
“The other leader also reiterated that historically that is their territory so it was not resolved. Since there was no resolution, why allow yourselves to be in that confrontational position when you can talk about economic relations, trade relations, right?” he said.
“It’s a win-win situation. But this is not to say that we have dropped our claim because we have asserted it also, the President reiterated it,” he added.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino 3rd, had brought the arbitration case before the international tribunal that resulted in the resounding victory over China.