THE United States is verifying reports that Chinese coast guard vessels have finally opened up Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) to Filipino fishermen.
In a news briefing in Washington on Friday (Saturday morning in Manila), State department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was aware of the reports and was “assessing” the situation at Panatag.
“[We are] still assessing. We hope it is certainly not a temporary measure,” the State department official said.
On Friday, Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters Filipino fishermen have been fishing at Panatag Shoal in the past three days without interference from the Chinese coast guard.
Abella told AFP on Saturday: “There is no sign of Chinese coast guard vessels in the area. While we do not have any official explanation for this, it sends a positive signal regarding relations.”
“This is a welcome development especially for Filipino fisherfolk,” he added.
Panatag is a triangular chain of reefs and rocks surrounding a 46-kilometer lagoon, spanning an area of 150 square kilometers. It was seized by China after a two-month standoff with the Philippines in 2012.
In a case brought by the administration of former president Benigno Aquino 3rd, the Philippines won a resounding victory at an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague on July 12 over Beijing’s extensive maritime claims in the area, infuriating the Asian giant.
But President Rodrigo Duterte has made a point of not flaunting the ruling and Chinese President Xi Jinping told the Philippine leader on his recent visit that there was no reason for hostility and difficult topics of discussion “could be shelved temporarily.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no direct confirmation on the Chinese coast guard’s withdrawal, but spoke in a conciliatory note on the reported resumption of Philippine fishing activities at Panatag.
“With President Duterte’s visit, bilateral relations have turned to a new page of all-around improvement. Under such circumstances, it is fully possible for the two countries to return to the track of managing disputes through consultation and focusing on cooperation,” a ministry spokesman said during a news briefing in Beijing on Friday.
The ministry noted that the two sides agreed to fishing industry cooperation in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) during the meeting.
CPP hits US
Washington, which supported the arbitration process, however said it hoped the deal between Manila and Beijing took the July 12 ruling into account.
“We’d like it to be a sign that China and the Philippines are moving toward an agreement on fishing access at Scarborough that would be in accordance with the July 12 arbitral decision,” the State department’s Toner said.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) pounced on Toner’s statement and hit the US for interfering in the country’s affairs.
“In the first place, the US has no standing whatsoever the make any assessment in an area that is part of Philippine maritime territory,” said the CPP in a statement. “Secondly, it is US war-mongering and naval buildup in accordance with its US pivot to encircle China that is at the root of the outstanding security problems in the South China Sea.”
The CPP, which is in talks for a final peace deal with the government, congratulated Manila and Beijing for the apparent breakthrough.
“The settlement of the Scarborough issue underscores what can be achieved by asserting national independence, building friendly relations with neighboring countries and opposing outside interference, especially war instigations by the US military,” it said.
A report by GMA Network said fishermen from the northern province of Pangasinan had returned to shore Saturday with “a huge load of big species of fish” caught at Panatag Shoal.
Fishermen from Pangasinan, who ventured back to the Panatag on Wednesday, said Chinese coast guard vessels did not intercept them.
The fishermen described the shoal as an abundant fishing ground, especially at the west side of the lagoon.
Fishermen from Subic, Masinloc and Santa Cruz towns in Zambales as well as those from Bataan also started sailing toward Panatag Shoal on Wednesday.