Last week, when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced his plan to keep the South China Sea’s disputed Scarborough Shoal off-limits to fishermen, China kept mum about whether it supported the proposal. Now it appears that Beijing has an alternative settlement in mind. Reuters:
China is considering a “wholesale” deal that will grant Philippine fishing vessels access to disputed Scarborough Shoal waters in the South China Sea, an influential Chinese academic and government adviser said on Friday, as relations between the two countries improve.
China has been thinking of means to grant Philippine fishing vessels access to the island’s waters since President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing in October, said Wu Shicun, head of government-run National Institute for South China Sea Studies.
“A wholesale bilateral fishing industry deal is still being discussed, an agreement has not yet been reached,” Wu said at a forum in Beijing.
At this stage, it is unclear exactly what such a “wholesale” deal would entail, but it seems that China wants to keep the shoal’s waters open to fishing. That is in line with earlier Chinese thinking: ahead of Duterte’s state visit to China, authorities hinted that they would be willing to grant Filipino fishermen access to the waters, and Chinese ships later pulled back from the shoal in a conciliatory gesture. But a bilateral fishing deal seemingly contradicts Duterte’s most recent proposal for a marine sanctuary implemented by unilateral executive order.
One obstacle to resolving the dispute is that neither side wants to lend legitimacy to the other’s claims of sovereignty. Hence Duterte’s attempt to resolve the issue by executive order, implying that the Philippines has full jurisdiction over the matter. China, meanwhile, appears to favor a bilateral settlement where it is the ultimate decider on the Philippines’ access to the shoal.
Will China and the Philippines be able to square this circle? Perhaps, and both sides certainly have an interest in putting the South China Sea dispute behind them, given Duterte’s promise to re-orient his foreign policy toward Beijing. Yet the conflicting signals coming from Beijing and Manila suggest that they are not yet on the same page, and speculation about a breakthrough may be premature.