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China may have left Scarborough Shoal in ‘sign of warming ties’

The reported departure of Chinese vessels from the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea was a sign of further warming bilateral ties between Beijing and Manila, analysts said.

The Philippines and the United States are verifying whether Chinese coastguard ships have indeed left the shoal.

US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told reporters in Beijing yesterday that any withdrawal from the shoal, even if it were a product of bilateral negotiations with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who had recently distanced himself from the US, “would be a positive development” welcomed by Washington.

Philippine defence chief Delfin Lorenzana announced on Friday that Philippine fishermen could access the shoal unimpeded for the first time in four years, but he added the report has to be validated.

Lorenzana said the Philippine Air Force planned aerial surveillance of the shoal, which is located 250km west of the Philippines main island of Luzon, as early as today to assess the situation.

The shoal, which is called Huangyan Island by China, is claimed by both sides.

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But Chinese experts said Beijing had deliberately prevented mention of a “Philippines fishing permit” in its joint statement with Manila during Duterte’s state visit to Beijing earlier this month because it wanted to avoid “any possible misinterpretation from the outside world that China had made any concession over the South China Sea issues”.

“Opening fishing access could not be permanent and formal, and it’s too early to say how future bilateral ties will develop, as it’s just the beginning,” said Du Jifeng, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Maritime experts in Beijing said both China and the Philippines were attempting to find a way out of the fishing rights controversy, which has been a key issue ever since Manila first accused Beijing of blocking Filipino fishermen from entering the shoal’s rich fishing grounds in 2013.

“After Duterte’s visit, both sides seemed to have reached a certain mutual understanding to dilute the tension in the region,” Du said.

Li Jie, a Beijing-based military observer, said that while both sides were trying to find a proper solution to the fishing rights disputes, these were also related to sovereignty rights and would take time to resolve.

Instead of simply blocking Filipino fishermen from the shoal, Beijing now wanted to explore whether allowing the fishermen to return could be a way to lower tensions, mainland experts said.

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There had been speculation ahead of Duterte’s visit to Beijing whether he would raise the issue with his Chinese counterparts.

Duterte later confirmed that fishing rights in the shoal were included in “private talks” and that he would “leave it to Chinese authorities” to decide how to ­proceed.

The issue was not mentioned in the joint statement issued after his meeting with President Xi Jinping .

China took effective control of the tiny, uninhabited shoal in 2012, after a tense stand-off with Philippine vessels.

Additional reporting by Reuters