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President Duterte has decided to issue a formal order declaring Panatag or Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea a maritime sanctuary where Filipinos and Chinese will be prohibited from fishing, officials said in a statement yesterday.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said Duterte relayed his plan to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru that ended Sunday.
Esperon and other Cabinet officials present at the meeting said Xi did not say whether or not he agreed to Duterte’s plan in the Scarborough Shoal.
China seized Scarborough in 2012 after a tense maritime standoff with the Philippines. Duterte’s plan is delicate because it may imply Philippine territorial control in a strategic shoal, which Chinese Coast Guard ships have closely guarded.
Both governments have also mutually suspected each other of harboring plans to erect concrete structures in the Scarborough’s shallow lagoon to cement their territorial claims.
If Duterte’s plan proceeds, Filipino, Chinese, and other fishermen would only be allowed to fish in the deeper waters just outside Scarborough, which has a vast triangular-shaped lagoon naturally fenced by coral outcrops with an entryway watched by Chinese Coast Guard personnel.
“You can go in but … don’t fish because it’s a maritime sanctuary,” Duterte’s Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said.
After taking control of Scarborough, which lies off the northwestern Philippines, Chinese Coast Guard personnel shooed away Filipino fishermen, at times with the use of water cannons or by deploying armed personnel on speed boats to chase them off.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III, responded by bringing the shoal dispute and other territorial issues against China to international arbitration. An international tribunal ruled in July against China, saying it violated the Filipinos’ rights by banning them from fishing.
China, however, ignored the ruling, which also invalidated its vast claims to virtually all of the South China Sea.
Duterte, who took office in June, reversed his predecessor’s adversarial stance and reached out to China.
Shortly after Duterte discussed the Scarborough dispute with Xi in a state visit to Beijing, Filipinos were allowed to return to the shoal to fish. Philippine Coast Guard ships also resumed patrols in the vicinity of the shoal. (AP)