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ON Scarborough Shoal, which is Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc to us, the Philippines and China have simply agreed to disagree.
China claims Scarborough is a historic part of China. It lies within the Nine-Dash Line that the Chinese government drew on a map in 1947. The Nine-Dash Line loops south from Hainan, following the Vietnamese coast, then east towards Palawan, north close to the various Philippine islands, then northeast to include Taiwan.
The Philippines, on the other hand, points out that Panatag is only 150 miles from the Zambales coast and is, therefore, well within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In the recent ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, it emphasized that the Scarborough Shoal is a traditional fishing area for fishermen of various nations and should remain so.
During his China visit, President Duterte said he and President Xi Jinping both stood firm on their claims to sovereign rights to the shoal and surrounding waters. “I told him we won the case and we were told (Scarborough) belongs to us. But he said ‘That belongs to us historically and we will not give it up’.” The two leaders agreed that the dispute could be resolved through talks, President Duterte said.
In the next few days, we should see if the President was right to be optimistic. If he is, we should see our fishermen back at Scarborough or Panatag, from which they have been blocked by Chinese ships in the last four years.
In 2012, the Chinese had used water cannons to force Filipino fishing vessels away. It was what had caused then President Benigno S. Aquino III to file the Philippine case against China in The Hague.
We won the case in The Hague. It ruled that the Nine-Dash-Line has no legal basis. It upheld the freedom of navigation in the entire South China Sea, which was what concerned the United States the most. It ruled that traditional fishing grounds, such as those at Scarborough, should remain open to all fishermen.
None of his mattered to China which had declared from the beginning that it did not recognize the authority of The Hague. It continues to maintain this stand to this day. But now, after his visit, President Duterte believes our fishermen can soon return to their old fishing grounds and earn a living as they used to. The question of sovereignty remains unresolved, with both the Philippines and China claiming the shoal. But in the meanwhile until further talks, China – because of the goodwill visit of President Duterte – may cease blasting at Filipino fishing vessels with water cannons.
We thus continue to disagree on the legal issue of ownership and sovereignty. But we can agree on allowing fishing in the area. For this concession which President Duterte has managed to win, we must be thankful for now.