Philippines rejects China language in Scarborough proposal
Now it can be told.
China wanted the Philippines to agree to a formal declaration that Beijing was “allowing” Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal, but Manila did not agree because the proposal would go against the ruling of an international tribunal that the common fishing ground did not belong to anyone.
That, according to Kabayan Rep. Harry Roque, was the reason China and the Philippines did not sign a written agreement on the return of Filipino fishermen to Scarborough Shoal during President Duterte’s state visit to China last week.
Roque was part of Mr. Duterte’s massive entourage, composed mainly of businessmen.
The Philippine side, Roque said, rejected the use of “allow” or “permit” in referring to Filipino fishermen regaining access to Scarborough Shoal, which they know as Panatag Shoal, as the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in July that the shoal is a common fishing ground.
“The reason it was not formally announced, and that it was not put in writing, is we don’t want to use the word ‘allow’ or ‘permit,’ because it will [contradict] the Hague ruling,” Roque told a press briefing at the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
He said China wanted to use “allow” or “permit” to strengthen its own position, but this “was unacceptable as far as Philippines is concerned.”
China, which claims 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, seized Panatag Shoal after a two-month standoff with the Philippines in 2012.
Without military muscle to fight for the shoal, the Philippines challenged China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea in The Hague court.
On July 12, the tribunal ruled that China’s claims had no basis in international law and that it had violated the Philippines’ right to fish and explore for resources in waters within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Panatag is located 230 km off the coast of Zambales province, well within the Philippines’ EEZ, and 800 km from Hainan Island, the closest Chinese landmass.
The court did not resolve the question of sovereignty over Panatag, but said the shoal is a common fishing ground, open to both Chinese and Filipino fishermen.
China, which did not take part in the arbitration, rejected the ruling, calling it “waste paper” and saying it would not change the situation in the South China Sea.
Roque, citing a Philippine source who was present at the closed-door meetings, said language was the primary constraint that kept China and the Philippines from formalizing the agreement, though “in principle” both sides agreed that Filipinos should be able to fish again at the shoal.
“I cannot predict when it will happen but we hope soon. It’s now a matter of finding alternative words,” he said.
Asked how he would frame the agreement, Roque suggested the word “recognize” to refer to the acknowledgment of the Philippine fishermen’s rights to the fishing area.
“But that might be problematic because that’s borrowing the language of the international tribunal,” he said.
During a visit to typhoon-ravaged northern Luzon earlier this week, Mr. Duterte said Filipino fishermen may be able to return to Panatag in a few days.
He said he had discussions about it with Chinese officials in Beijing but that he did not know if the Chinese would fulfill their part of the talks.
Quoting two Chinese sources with ties to the leadership in Beijing, Reuters reported last week that China was considering giving Filipino fisherman conditional access to Panatag Shoal.
“Everybody can go, but there will be conditions,” one of the sources who speaks regularly with senior officials told Reuters, referring to Chinese and Filipino fishermen.
Asked what the conditions were, the source said: “The two countries would have to form working groups to iron out details.”