China is reportedly thinking of giving "wholesale" access and fishing rights to Philippine fishing vessels in the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The move is said to be the result of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seeking closer and warmer ties with China, leaving aside territorial disputes the two countries got into.
Wu Shicun, head of government-run National Institute for South China Sea Studies and an adviser under President Xi Jingpin's administration, said on Friday (25 November) that China has been considering taking this dramatic move to grant access to the island's waters for Filipino fishermen since Duterte visited Beijing in October.
"A wholesale bilateral fishing industry deal is still being discussed, an agreement has not yet been reached," Wu said at a forum in Beijing, Reuters reported.
The Filipino president's China trip came shortly after the UN-backed Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague ruled in favour of Manila, rejecting Beijing's sweeping claims in the hotly contested waters. China said it would neither accept nor recognise the verdict and warned foreign governments to stay away from bringing up the topic at international forums.
However, with Duterte shifting Manila's ties away from the US, towards China and Russia, Beijing is reported to have taken a softer stance against the Philippines, which brought the case against China.
China is thought to have used its coastguard to block the waters around the disputed shoal to prevent Filipinos from entering, with frequent reports of its fishermen being harassed by the Chinese.
It was also reported that China's vessels secretly left the shoal soon after Duterte's visit, which allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the region.
On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, Duterte reportedly made a proposal to his Chinese counterpart to turn Panatag or Scaraborough Shoal into a marine sanctuary. He made a unilateral declaration to bar fishermen from exploiting marine life at the tranquil lagoon, meaning no fishing activities inside the reef, although fishing would still be allowed in the waters around the region.
The waters within the shoal are anyway not accessible to either Chinese or Filipino fishermen, Wu, who has been involved in diplomatic efforts to bring both the countries closer, said. But he added that fishermen would be allowed access to the shoal for humanitarian reasons if the region is hit by a typhoon.
Zhu Feng, director of the South China Sea Center at Nanjing University, said there had been a "fundamental change" since Duterte took office on 30 June. He added that if the "Scarborough Shoal push" becomes successful, it would give a ray of hope to both the sides that territorial disputes can be resolved through diplomatic talks.
However, when asked about Wu's comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing would make "appropriate arrangements" to allow Filipino fishing vessels to operate in the shoal, but did not give further details.