Filipinos may soon regain access to the traditional fishing grounds in the disputed South China Sea but with certain limitations following his meeting with the leaders of China, President Rodrigo Duterte announced on Sunday, October 23.
The president shared the imminent breakthrough about the fishing rights of Filipino fishermen even as the Philippines and China refused to back down on their respective territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“Wala ho kaming pinag-usapang armas, wala ho kaming pinag-usapang giyera-giyera o maglagay ng… Pinag-usapan namin kung papaano tayo magtulungan (We did not discuss about arms, we did not discuss war… What we tackled was how our countries can work together),” Duterte said during a visit to the storm-hit Tuguegarao, Cagayan.
“We’ll just wait for a few more days. Baka makabalik na tayo doon sa Scarborough Shoal ang pangingisda ng ating mga kababayan (We might return to Scarborough Shoal to resume the fishing activities of our countrymen),” he said.
The president recently held closed-door meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to revitalize friendly relations and intensify cooperation on marine security, fisheries, agriculture, among others.
The two leaders also agreed to practice “self-restraint” and avoid threats or use force to avoid the escalation of the territorial conflict in the South China Sea. They agreed to resume bilateral consultations and negotiations to properly resolve the dispute.
In a later visit to Isabela also on Sunday, Duterte disclosed that the territorial dispute was tackled last week, with him and Xi firmly behind their countries’ respective ownership of the disputed territory.
Duterte said he mentioned the arbitral ruling that virtually upheld the country’s territorial ownership but ruled out resorting to war to settle the dispute. “I will not insist now, I will not impose now, I will not go to war now. I will not waste the lives of my soldiers.”
Xi likewise asserted Beijing’s ownership during the meeting with Duterte. “Ang sabi niya, ‘Amin talaga ito historically at hindi kami bibigay dito.’ Sabi ko, ‘Lalo na kami kasi kami nanalo sa korte. (The Chinese leader said ‘thats ours historically and we won’t give in.’ I said, ‘We won’t all the more since we won in the court.’)”
In 2012, China seized control of Scarborough Shoal and restricted Filipino fishermen access to its rich fishing grounds. The contested shoal is claimed by Beijing as Huangyan Island and by Manila as Panatag Shoal.
The Chinese incursion prompted Manila to file an arbitration case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which recently rejected Beijing’s claim over the South China Sea. China has ignored the ruling but expressed willingness to resume talks with Manila to reach a peaceful settlement.
Duterte said the Chinese leaders recognized that the dispute could be resolved peacefully but claimed it would “take time.”
He said he sees no problem with such period of bilateral talks as long as the entitlements are discussed based on the South China Sea arbitral judgment.
“We will continue to talk and one day in the future, pag-usapan talaga natin. Hindi naman pwedeng hayaan na lang natin itong nakabitin. (we will discuss this. This shouldn’t be left hanging in the air.)”
Duterte, however, said he would appeal to local fishermen to avoid the shallow breeding grounds of fishes in the Scarborough Shoal—in the “lagoon” or the green part of the ocean—to ensure a stable supply of marine resources.
“Ako na mismo ang nagsabi na kung makabalik tayo sa Scarborough Shoal, bilang may-ari, sabi rin nila sila may-ari, ako na magsabi na huwag kayo mangisda diyan. Iyong parang fish pond sa dagat (I myself said that if we return to Scarborough Shoal, as its owner, since they also claim ownership, I told them not to fish there like it’s a fish pond in the sea,” Duterte said.
Duterte said it was imperative to protect the country’s rich marine resources since Filipinos heavily rely on them for sustenance.
“The cheapest we can buy is the marine products so it behooves upon us to really not to gamble and destroy the spawning grounds because then it would result in an imbalance in our food,” he said.
Duterte said China has also committed to make a similar appeal to their fishermen. “Iyan ang pinag-usapan namin. Ewan ko kung tutuparin nila (That’s what we talked about. I don’t know if they will comply).”