China vessels leave Scarborough Shoal
Chinese ships are no longer at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea and Philippine boats can resume fishing, the Philippine defense minister said yesterday, calling the Chinese departure a “welcome development”. Philippine fishermen could access the shoal unimpeded for the first time in four years, Defense 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 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 Scarborough Shoal is comprised of only a few rocks poking above the sea some 124 nautical miles 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. —