Duterte to declare Panatag a marine sanctuary
LIMA, Peru—President Duterte plans to issue an executive order unilaterally declaring the lagoon of the disputed Panatag Shoal a marine sanctuary, where neither Filipinos nor Chinese may be allowed to fish.
Mr. Duterte told Chinese President Xi Jinping about his plan during their bilateral meeting on Saturday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum here, according to National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who was present at the meeting.
“The President has decided to declare that a sanctuary. That is a unilateral action from the government,” he said, referring to the triangular lagoon “as big as Quezon City” and known to be a spawning ground for fish.
Panatag Shoal, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal, is a traditional fishing ground for Filipinos.
China seized the shoal after a two-month standoff with the Philippines in 2012 but recently loosened its grip to allow Filipinos to fish again in the area following friendly overtures from Mr. Duterte.
If Mr. Duterte’s plan proceeds, Filipino, Chinese and other fishermen would only be allowed to fish in the deeper waters just outside Panatag.
Mr. Duterte’s plan is delicate because it may imply Philippine territorial control over the shoal, whose ownership the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague did not resolve when it ruled in favor of the Philippines in the maritime dispute in July.
Esperon said Mr. Duterte “clearly talked about maritime arrangements” with Xi, including the prospect of cooperation between the coast guards of the two countries.
“The implication and the effect of this is that there will be more coast guard-to-coast guard relations in areas like Scarborough and, of course, in other areas of the South China Sea, West Philippine Sea,” he told reporters in a briefing.
Cooperation between the two coast guards “simply means that there is a degree of demilitarization in the area,” he said, stressing that coast guards are generally civilian forces.
“We call that the white ships going there, compared to gray ships going to Scarborough,” Esperon said.
Gray ships are naval war vessels.
Esperon said it was the Philippine position that there should be no more fishing in the Panatag lagoon, where Filipinos are currently not allowed to fish by the Chinese coast guards in the area.
He said the Philippines was aware that the Chinese were also not fishing in the lagoon, based on satellite monitoring.
Esperon said the “desired arrangement” by the Philippine side was to have both Filipino and Chinese fishermen fishing outside the triangle.
Asked about how Xi responded to Mr. Duterte’s statement, Esperon said the Chinese leader’s reply was along the lines of “an agreement that is not part of an agreement.”
“It was a very oriental response,” he said. —WITH A REPORT FROM AP
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