The Philippines and the US are verifying if Chinese coast guard ships left a disputed shoal after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reached out to Beijing, allowing Filipino fishermen back to the rich fishing area that China seized in 2012 as tensions spiked in the South China Sea.
Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine coast guard reported that Chinese ships have not been sighted at Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) in the past three days, but he added the report has to be validated.
Lorenzana said that the Philippine air force yesterday planed to conduct aerial surveillance of the shoal off the northwestern Philippines to check the situation.
China took effective control of the tiny, uninhabited shoal in 2012, after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. Since then, Chinese coast guard ships have been driving Filipino fishermen away from the area, while farther south in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), China went on to construct seven man-made islands despite protests from other claimants, including Taiwan.
Deputy US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told reporters in Beijing yesterday that China’s withdrawal from Scarborough Shoal, even if it were a product of bilateral talks with Duterte, “would be a positive development” welcomed by Washington.
He said it would be consistent with an international arbitration ruling in July that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea. The ruling said that both Filipinos and Chinese can fish at the shoal, but China ignored it and its coast guard continued to block Filipino fishermen.
Blinken said that the US.would continue to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea that challenge Beijing’s territorial claims at a time when countries in the region— including those that are not directly involved in the China-Philippine dispute — have signaled “increased demand” for US presence.
Duterte has attempted to repair relations with China, but he has also ruffled feathers with the Philippines’ longtime ally by threatening to scale down military ties with the US and hurling insults at US President Barack Obama.
US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said the US was still assessing reports that Chinese boats have left Scarborough Shoal and Filipinos have resumed fishing there.
“We hope it is certainly not a temporary measure. We would 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,” Toner told reporters in Washington.
After visiting Beijing last week, Duterte said without elaborating that Filipino fishermen “may” be able to return to Scarborough after he discussed the territorial rift with Chinese leaders.
He said he insisted in his talks with Chinese leaders that the shoal belonged to the Philippines, but that the Chinese also asserted their claim of ownership.
“If the Chinese ships have left, then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area. We welcome this development,” Lorenzana said. “Our fishermen have not been fishing there since 2012. This will return to them their traditional source of livelihood.”
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