PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has done it! Filipinos are again able to fish at Panatag (Scarborough) shoal less than a week after the President promised them access to that traditional fishing ground off Zambales.
Official details were still hard to come by until yesterday, but out at sea Chinese Coast Guard vessels that used to block Filipino fishermen were conveniently nowhere, a fact that could happen only upon instructions coming all the way from the top.
News reports on TV carry video clips of Filipino fishermen hauling their catch from Panatag. They said they had not been bothered by Chinese patrol boats. The lagoon inside the triangular-shaped enclosure of reefs and rocks is open as shelter in bad weather.
We can imagine experts on both sides of the South China Sea busy drafting careful statements explaining the lifting of the Chinese blockade without compromising their respective legal position on Panatag’s ownership and control.
Manila will not ask Beijing in writing for access, as that may recognize Chinese sovereign control over the shoal that is within the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines. If it is Filipino territory, why ask Chinese permission to enter it?
Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio of the Supreme Court even raised the possibility of the President being impeached if he yielded Philippine sovereignty over Panatag.
Duterte agreed with this view. In Beijing, it was reported, Duterte declined to sign a statement (a trap?) that China was “allowing” Filipino fishermen back to Panatag.
On the other hand, China also will not issue a statement that can be interpreted as recognizing Philippine sovereignty. Neither will it impliedly accept the recent ruling of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague that Panatag does not belong to any nation and that China’s barring Filipinos is illegal.
• Why US insists on arbitral ruling?
IN WASHINGTON, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was still assessing reports that Chinese boats have left Panatag, and that Filipinos have resumed fishing there. He was quoted by the AP as saying:
“We hope it is certainly not a temporary measure. We would like it to be a sign that China and the Philippines are moving toward an agreement on fishing access at Scarborough (Panatag) that would be in accordance with the July 12 arbitral decision.”
Toner did not have to add “in accordance with the July 12 arbitral decision” referring to the ruling that China’s “nine-dash-line” basis for claiming vast areas in the South China Sea violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Philippines, which filed and won the arbitration case on most points, is itself not citing the ruling in its discussions on Panatag.
Forcing into focus the UNCLOS-based ruling could sabotage the emerging Phl-China rapprochement since Beijing has steadfastly refused to accept the arbitration decision that struck down as illegal several of its actions in disputed SCS areas.
The US need not suggest negative implications to the presence of Chinese Coast Guard vessels in Panatag as long as they do not interfere with the fishing of Filipinos nor confront Philippine Coast Guard elements that may be there.
In fact, the convivial presence in Panatag of fishing boats and patrol craft of both China and the Philippines would be a testament to their newly found live-and-let-live arrangement.
The two neighbors should ignore attempts of outsiders to prolong the quarrel over the rich fishing ground that should remain open as it was before 2012 when the Chinese Coast Guard started to block Filipinos from the waters that they have fished for generations.
Authorities have reported that there are enough fisheries and aquatic resources for everybody, except that some Chinese harvest even protected endangered species. The beneficiaries of Panatag must agree to stop this malpractice.
• China wants US-bashing as proof?
WHEN CHINA and the Philippines issue statements, they do not have to mention the arbitral ruling if such omission would help cool the simmering situation and restore normal fishing and neighborly contact.
But if the two nations want to oblige kibitzers who demand to see a piece of paper on the normalization, they can prepare an understanding on the joint management of Panatag resources touching on safety and security, ecosystem conservation, mutual assistance, and the like.
China and the Philippines can also consider inviting Vietnam, which was mentioned in the arbitral award as among traditional fisher-nations at the shoal that the tribunal said no nation owns.
Reopening of Panatag for common use was negotiated during the Oct. 18-21 state visit of Duterte that restored the status quo ante 2012.
As we said in Postscript last Oct. 18, restoring access to Panatag is “success enough” for Duterte’s first major diplomatic venture. He achieved this on top of a $24-billion package of Chinese investments and soft loans – and goodwill on which to build upgraded relations.
One thing that still puzzles many Filipinos, more than 90 percent of whom regard the US highly, is why Duterte has to make friends with China while tearing away rather roughly his country’s long-standing amicable ties with America.
Indeed, in the tradition of politics being addition, why make enemies when one can make friends? The Philippines can keep both the US and China close to its heart.
Duterte’s reference to historical hurts and his sad experience with US immigration officers are not enough reason, we think, to rip away the fabric of friendship woven over decades of collaboration in war and peace.
The reason that keeps suggesting itself is that Beijing may have made Manila’s breaking away from Washington a condition for entertaining Duterte’s bid to make friends and benefit from such relationship. If true, it is sad.