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Hopes up for Bajo de Masinloc

FOR the first time in years, Zambales fishermen said that last week, they were no longer being harassed by Chinese coast guard vessels in the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Mayor Arsenia Lim of Masinloc, Zambales, said that some 100 Masinloc fishermen expressed surprise at the unexpected turn of events.

The Scarborough shoal, known locally as Bajo de Masinloc and, at times, Panatag, is only 20 miles from Zambales, and well within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is, however, claimed by China, which calls it Huangyan, as it falls within China’s so-called Nine-Dash Line looping around virtually the entire South China Sea.

West of Scarborough are the Paracel islands, contested by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Then south of the Paracel and west of Palawan are the Spratlys with some 130 small islands and reefs, some claimed by Taiwan, some by Vietnam, some by the Philippines, but all claimed by China. Pagasa island in the Spratlys, 280 miles northwest of Puerto Princesa, is part of Kalayaan, the Philippines’ smallest municipality with a population of 222.

This in brief is the uneasy situation in the South China Sea. The United States has entered the picture, saying the South China Sea is an international shipping route. Affirming freedom of navigation, it has repeatedly sent its warships to the area.

Filipino fishermen have long been fishing among the many islands dotting the South China Sea, especially Bajo de Masinloc which is just a short distance from its namesake, Masinloc, Zambales. For years, however, they have been forced away by Chinese coast guard vessels, often with water cannons. Then last week, the Masinloc fishermen found they could now fish in the rich waters without the harassment they used to experience.

The Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research attributed the change to the election of President Duterte who has indicated his readiness to talk with China on differences between the two countries. China has always called for bilateral negotiations with all the nations with which it has conflicting claims.

The Phiippines, under the Aquino administration, had rejected bilateral talks in favor of filing a case with the UN Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in the Hague. The tribunal is due to issue a decision any time now, but China has declared it does not recognize its jurisdiction.

The change in Bajo de Masinloc, where Filipino fishermen suddenly found they were no longer harassed by the Chinese coast guard, raises hopes that the incoming Duterte administration may be able to do something about the dilemma.

There may yet be no permanent solution because of the sovereignty issue, but a friendly arrangement that will allow the Filipino fishermen to carry on as in the past would be most welcome. Other agreements may be reached later, perhaps for joint exploration and exploitation of mineral wealth in the area.