PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo Duterte will issue a formal order declaring a sprawling lagoon in a disputed shoal a maritime sanctuary where Filipinos and Chinese will be prohibited from fishing, an official said.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said in a statement Monday that Duterte relayed his plan to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the just-concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru.
“The President has decided to declare that as a sanctuary. That is a unilateral action from government,” he said, as quoted by the Inquirer.
The shoal, which is located some 124 nautical miles from the Philippine mainland, is rich in fish stocks and a boon to local fishermen.
Cabinet officials present at the meeting say Xi did not say whether he agreed or not to Duterte’s plan in the Scarborough Shoal.
Esperon said, however, that Duterte held “clear” talks on maritime arrangements with Xi, and mooted the cooperation of maritime authorities of both countries.
“The implication and the effect of this is that there will be more coast guard-to-coast guard relations in areas like Scarborough and, of course, in other areas of the South China Sea, West Philippine Sea,” he said.
Esperon said cooperation between the Philippine and Chinese coast guards would lead to the demilitarisation in the area as they were mostly civilian forces.
“We call that the white ships going there, compared to grey ships going to Scarborough,” he said.
Esperon said the Philippine government believes fishing activities should not be allowed to be conducted in the area which is guarded by Chinese coast guards and currently off limits to Filipino fisherman.
He said based on satellite monitoring, Chinese fishing vessels were also not fishing in the lagoon.
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’ favour 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.
China seized Scarborough in 2012 after a tense standoff with the Philippines. Duterte’s plan is delicate because it may imply Philippine territorial control in a strategic shoal.