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Our fishers are back but legal issue remains

Scarborough Shoal, known to us as Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc, is one of the flashpoints in our dispute with China in the South China Sea.

In 2012, Philippine fishing vessels were forced away from their traditional fishing grounds at the shoal by Chinese vessels using water cannons. As a result, the Philippine government filed a case against China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, particularly citing Scarborough which is just 150 miles west of Zambales, well within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague decided last July, 2016 that Scarborough is a traditional fishing area for both Philippine and Chinese fishermen and should remain so. As for China’s claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, the UN court said there is no legal basis for such claim. China, however, has declared it does not recognize the UN court’s ruling, insisting on its claim to historic rights.

In the face of this intransigence, the Philippines has chosen to take no further legal step to claim its rights.

President Duterte thus said he would merely appeal for the Filipino fishermen who have not been able to fish in the Scarborough area in the last four years. When he returned from his state visit last October 21, he said he was hopeful that the fishermen would soon be able to return to Scarborough.

Last week, fishermen from Pangasinan on their way home saw a fishing boat anchored off the rich fishing grounds and they proceeded to investigate. To their surprise, no Chinese boats came to chase them away. They thus became the first Filipino fishermen to come home with a rich harvest of fish from the shoal in the last four years.

It was reported that in President Duterte’s meeting with Chinese officials, China proposed a formal declaration that it was allowing the Filipino fishermen access to Scarborough, but the diplomatic officials who were with President Duterte advised against it, as China could not properly “allow” access to an area to which has no exclusive right.

Under the UNCLOS and its provision for Exclusive Economic Zones, it is the Philippines which has the right to acquire and develop resources from the shoal.

We are thankful that our fishermen are now able to resume their fishing at the shoal, a show of goodwill from China because of President Duterte’s moves for closer Philippines-China relations. This is all because of a special arrangement President Duterte managed to win during his state visit. The legal issue will have to be resolved at some future time.

But the fact is Scarborough is well within our EEZ and is ours to develop. And the UN court ruled it is a traditional fishing area and it must remain accessible to both Philippine and Chinese fishermen. Let us keep that on the record.

In the meantime, let us be glad with our fishermen that after four long years, they are again able to visit their old fishing grounds.