Chinese ships were no longer at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea and Philippine boats could resume fishing, the Philippine defence minister said on Friday, calling the departure a “welcome development”.
Philippine fishermen could access the shoal unimpeded for the first time in four years, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, capping off a startling turnaround in ties since his country rattled China in 2013 by challenging its maritime claims at an international tribunal.
The departure of the Chinese coastguard comes after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s high-profile visit to Beijing and follows his repeated requests for China to end its blockade of the shoal, a tranquil lagoon rich in fish stocks.
“Since three days ago there are no longer Chinese ships, coastguard or navy, in the Scarborough area,” Lorenzana told reporters. “If the Chinese ships have left then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area.”
Though the shoal is comprised of only a few rocks poking above the sea some 230km off the Philippine mainland, it is symbolic of the country’s efforts to assert its maritime sovereignty claims.
Lorenzana did not explain the circumstances of the Chinese vessels leaving the shoal, which was the centrepiece of a case Manila filed in 2013 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Asked on Friday about the return of Philippine fishermen to the shoal, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang made no mention of a coastguard withdrawal.
The two countries “were able to work together on issues regarding the South China Sea and appropriately resolve disputes,” Lu told a regular briefing.
The Hague court in July declared that despite the Scarborough Shoal being located within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, no one country had sovereign rights to it, so that all claimants may fish there.
China has refused to recognise the case or the award, which also invalidated the nine-dash line on Chinese maps denoting its claims to most of the South China Sea.
China seized Scarborough Shoal – claimed by Beijing as Huangyan Island and by Manila as Panatag – in 2012.
The previous administration’s pursuit of the case infuriated China, but it appears to have changed its stance since Duterte took office and started praising Beijing, often in the same sentences as his perplexing verbal attacks on ally the United States.
Reuters reported on the eve of Duterte’s visit to China that Beijing would consider granting Philippine fishermen conditional access to the shoal.
An end to the stand-off over the shoal is still a complex and potentially combustible issue for both countries. Some Philippine commentators say Manila may object to any reference to its fishermen being “permitted” by China to return, while Beijing might be wary of appearing to be softening its position on what it calls “indisputable” sovereignty.
There was some confusion about the situation at sea, however, with a Philippine military spokesman earlier saying Chinese vessels were “still there”. Some fishermen familiar with the area said the same.
Duterte’s spokesman, Ernesto Abella, offered no comment on whether the two sides had reached agreement.
“All I can say, at this stage, it has been observed there are no longer Chinese coastguard in the area,” he said.
Lu hailed Duterte’s recent visit as a success and said both countries were able to discuss the South China Sea impasse.
“It is completely possible that the bilateral relationship can recover,” Lu said. “I can tell you that the two sides are in communication.”