CHINA has confirmed that Philippine fishermen have been granted access to the disputed Scarborough Shoal, following the meeting two weeks ago between leaders of both nations.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday that Beijing made “proper arrangements” regarding the shoal after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressed concern about access.
Hua told reporters the issue had been handled “based on the friendship between China and the Philippines.”
Earlier in the day, a senior aide to Duterte was quoted by AFP as saying that both countries have reached a “friendly” understanding on the matter, one that would allow Filipinos to fish in the area seized by Beijing in 2012.
As a result of this, Filipino fishermen have since been able to enter the area unhindered, even with Chinese government vessels on patrol 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,” Manila’s national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon was quoted as saying.
“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.
Esperon stressed, however, that neither country has dropped its claim to the shoal although he said both sides decided to sidestep the issue for the sake of bolstering ties.
“There is no talk on territorial rights, there is no talk on assertion of rights, but they respect our traditional rights,” Esperon added.
The shoal, which is located some 124 nautical miles from the Philippine mainland, is rich in fish stocks and a boon to local fishermen.
Since 2012, both countries have had several tense standoffs over which country had sovereignty over the area, culminating in Manila bringing the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
In July this year, ties between the two countries took a hit when the Hague ruled in the Philippines’ favor in the territorial dispute. In the ruling, the international arbitration court said China had no historical title over the South China Sea and that it had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights.
China has since said that it rejects the ruling, which ramps up pressure on the Asian powerhouse to scale back its military expansion in the area, and that it would continue to resolve the dispute with its neighbours.
But during his recent visit to Beijing, Duterte hinted that Philippine fisherman “may” be able to return to the shoal. “Let us just wait for a few more days,” he said.
Duterte was in Beijing to cement ties with China and forge a new commercial alliance amid his country’s deteriorating relationship with the United States, a long-time ally of the Philippines.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press