The Chinese-Philippine détente continues apace, as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte unilaterally announces a ban on fishing in the disputed waters of the Scarborough Shoal. Reuters:
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will issue an executive order declaring part of the disputed Scarborough Shoal a marine sanctuary off-limits to all fishermen, a move his office said was supported by Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
Duterte will make a unilateral declaration barring fishermen from exploiting marine life at a tranquil lagoon that was central to years of bitter squabbling, and the basis of an arbitration case brought and won by the Philippines. […]
The establishment of a protected marine zone, if successful, could provide both countries a face-saving way to break the diplomatic deadlock without making a political agreement or formal concessions.
Fishing rights at Scarborough have been a sticking point as Duterte seeks to align himself more closely with Beijing. Ahead of Duterte’s state trip to China, Chinese authorities hinted that Beijing could grant Filipino fishermen access to the waters as part of a larger bargain with Manila. That notion gained credibility when Chinese ships pulled back from Scarborough Shoal in late October, and Filipino fishers began to return.
Duterte’s executive order would establish a more formalized state of affairs, granting fishing access to the deeper waters around Scarborough Shoal while banning access to the disputed lagoon itself. The action is being justified on environmental grounds, with Fidel Ramos, the former Filipino President and Duterte’s former envoy to China, arguing that a marine sanctuary allows for “the highest form of aquaculture preservation.”
The latest move, perceived by many as an attempt to further placate China, is not without controversy. For one, Duterte’s unilateral action implicitly signals that the Philippines has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, which may rankle Beijing. Domestically, the order could produce backlash from Filipino fishermen who want full access to the lagoon. And there are other players on the international scene who may object: Taiwan and Vietnam were found by the Hague tribunal to have fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal, which Duterte’s ban would deny them.
Officials in Manila claim that China is supportive of the plan, which Duterte floated at the APEC summit in Peru this weekend, but Beijing is keeping mum for now. The Filipino President may have seized the diplomatic initiative with his proposal, but its ultimate success depends on whether the Chinese will play ball.