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South China Sea Change
Shakeup at the Scarborough Shoal

The Chinese-Philippine rapprochement may have seen its first tangible payoff in the South China Sea, as the Philippine Defense Ministry reports that Chinese ships have left Scarborough Shoal. Reuters:

Chinese ships are no longer at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea and Philippine boats can resume fishing, the Philippine defense minister said on Friday, calling the Chinese departure a “welcome development”.

Philippine fishermen can access the shoal unimpeded for the first time in four years, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, capping off a startling turnaround in ties since his country rattled China in 2013 by challenging its maritime claims at an international tribunal.

A few caveats are in order: the Defense Minister’s claims of a withdrawal have not been confirmed by the Chinese, and one Philippine military spokesman said that Chinese ships were “still there.” The Defense Minister may have spoken too soon, and it remains to be seen how lasting Philippine fishing access will be.

Nonetheless, the news is in line with reports that we noted before Duterte’s China trip, suggesting that Beijing would grant Filipino fishermen access to the Scarborough Shoal as a minor concession. For Beijing, such an arrangement would certainly be preferable to a broader settlement along the lines of the Hague tribunal, which rejected China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea, and whose authority China continues to reject in turn.

Going forward, the question is whether the Chinese withdrawal will be formalized as a new status quo. Some analysts believe the withdrawal is merely an initial olive branch, offered by the Chinese on the way to bilateral negotiations with Manila. The diplomatic details of that agreement will matter greatly for the region’s future: the Philippines will bristle at any language about China “granting access” to waters that Manila still its their sovereign territory, while Beijing will not want to legally cede its own claims.

Today’s developments are a change after four years of standoff, but the South China Sea dispute is far from over.

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  • Observe&Report

    How generous of China to allow the Filipinos to fish in their own waters, like a home invader allowing his hostages to use the bathroom.

  • That’s the least China could do considering how far Duterte has bent over for them. And I’m not talking backwards.

  • Dhako

    I see some are still bitter about how China have played a blinder of a game against all the effort in which US have put in their effort of finding countries in the region who will willingly go help Uncle Sam to gang up against China. But n time, after you go through the seven stages of grief, I am sure you will come to the final stages of accepting the reality of South China Sea. And that reality is that, most of these nations (even the Vietnamese, who seems to be the last hope of Uncle Sam in holding the line against China in her neighborhood) will – without fail – choose China over Uncle Sam, if matters come down to that sort of “stark binary” choice.

    Hence, the strategical job of China is to gingerly tightened the economical rope of those wavering on the fence, gradually, till they, themselves seen the light. And accept, the US is not in any economical sense a position that can take the place China occupies for them, in-terms of trade, investment, and most crucially of all, in-terms of the scale of export these countries could do to China as opposed to how much meager export they could do with their basic industries to the well-developed US’s continental market. This is what has convinced the likes of Philippines as well as Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia. And soon that will be the same reason that will have a telling effect on places like Singapore, and, finally, in Vietnam.

    As for the Scarborough Shoal, the goal was to demonstrate how siding with Uncle Sam against China was never going to be profitable venture for the Philippines, even if they have to go some alleged international court. And now that has been accomplished, and the President Duterte of Philippines have had his “Come-to-Jesus” moment, whereby the scale has fallen from his eyes, and had seen how much it was strategical mistake to bank on the US bailing out his chicken from Chinese’s jaws, then, the a new “understanding” could be started afresh, between China and Duterte’s Philippines.

    And this will mean, most of the sovereignty issues will be “Park” on a long stretches legal limbo, while, the Chinese will be polite enough not to talk too much (or too laud) about this issue, and about their sovereignty over these areas, particularly at the presence of their new Filipino friends. And at the same time, all manner of mutual development will take place in this particular sea and it’s various disputed shoals and whatnot. This is the way to go about, meaning, ambiguous at best in legal ownership of these rocks, while at the same timing “possessing” them (in the sense of the old Roman’s law, which used to suggest: “That Possession is Nine-Tenth of the Law”).at worse. And, in the meantime, a mutually beneficial developmental venture will be undertaking, along lines of prospecting gas and oil in the continental shelf of this disputed sea.

    • LarryD

      “People will prefer the strong horse.” And the US now looks like a very weak horse indeed. Just as the anti-colonial Obama wants.

    • JR

      Gloat all you want. I got one word for you. Shale. Nobody else has it except us. Words matter. So does access to resources.

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