China has confirmed it is no longer driving away Filipino fishermen from Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing her government made “proper arrangements” after President Duterte expressed concern about access to the shoal.
Hua said the issue had been handled “based on the friendship between China and the Philippines.”
Last week, Filipino fishermen began returning from the shoal with plenty of catch.
The Chinese relaxing of their hold on Panatag came days after Duterte’s return from his state visit to Beijing last Oct. 21.
During the visit, Duterte said he discussed with Chinese President Xi Jinping the maritime dispute. Duterte had also announced during his visit his foreign policy pivot to China.
In Manila, the development at the shoal remains a puzzle to Philippine officials.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said they welcomed the development but stressed there was no agreement between the Philippines and China that prompted the latter to cease its blockade of the shoal to Filipino fishermen.
“There was no expressed agreement but it seems like the traditional rights of our fishermen are being respected. There is no talk of the territorial rights. There is no talk on assertion of rights but they respect our traditional rights,” Esperon said.
The Chinese seized the shoal – also called Bajo de Masinloc – in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine Navy, which tried to arrest Chinese poachers in the area. The Chinese have not left the shoal since then.
A UN-backed international tribunal based in The Hague declared in July that Panatag Shoal is a common fishing ground.
The tribunal, in the same ruling, invalidated China’s massive nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea.
Located 124 nautical miles from Zambales, Panatag Shoal is well within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
As of yesterday, Esperon said there were no more Chinese naval ships around the shoal and what remained were only coast guard ships.
Esperon also maintained that despite the development, the Philippines is not surrendering its sovereignty over the area to China, which was invoking its “historical rights” to assert its claim.
“Maybe not now but when we go to another round of talks, we’ll again assert it,” he said. – Jaime Laude
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