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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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