Rodrigo Duterte has unilaterally declared that the disputed Scarborough Shoal will become a fishing-free zone, a move seemingly aimed at further defusing tensions with China that analysts warned could backfire.
“The president has decided to declare that as a sanctuary,” Hermogenes Esperon, Mr Duterte’s national security adviser told reporters on Sunday after the Philippine leader met Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific summit in Lima.
The triangular shoal, and the fish-rich, 150 square kilometre lagoon that lies within, is at the centre of a long-running territorial dispute between Manila and Beijing, with China forcing Philippine fishing boats out in 2012.
Manila brought an international court case against Beijing over the issue, with court of arbitration in the Netherlands ruling in July that China had “unlawfully prevented Filipino fishermen from engaging in traditional fishing at Scarborough Shoal”.
China refused to recognise the authority of the court and Mr Duterte has sought to mend ties with Beijing since he took office in June, hoping to secure Chinese investment and trade in exchange for de-escalating the dispute.
Philippine officials escorting Mr Duterte said the latest meeting with Mr Xi had enhanced the trust between the two men and that the Chinese leader had responded positively to the proposed sanctuary, albeit in a “very oriental” way.
A Philippines spokesman quoted Mr Xi as saying that China would “mobilise government forces to promote our agreements” and “step up guidance to create a favourable environment”.
Mr Esperon said the Philippines was willing to “set aside negotiations on the issue of territorial ownership of Scarborough Shoal” in order to “go into more productive activities like fishing and more maritime co-operation”.
The Chinese government has yet to comment on the latest proposal.
Euan Graham, security analyst at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said Mr Duterte, who has a reputation for shooting from the hip, was probably trying to develop an “impromptu political solution that is consistent with Philippines sovereignty, avoids tensions with China and saves his own face”.
But he warned that the declaration undermined the international tribunal ruling, which resulted from a case brought by the previous government to defend the fishing rights of Philippine fishermen at the shoal.
Mr Graham added that the decision may backfire because Mr Duterte was in effect denying access to China, Taiwan and Vietnam, which were all found by The Hague tribunal to have traditional fishing rights there too.
Liu Zhiqin, who researches international relations at Renmin University of China, said Mr Duterte’s announcement could “easily intensify the conflicts between China and the Philippines”.
“China will be very careful about this and will need to look at the real motives of the Philippines,” he said. “The Philippines might use it as a starting point to trace back sovereignty.”
Mr Liu added that Beijing was still wary about Duterte, who has claimed he wants to deepen ties with China and aim for a “separation” with the US, its traditional ally and former colonial master.
“Mr Duterte has not given in on practical issues yet,” he said. “He is just setting the arbitration aside and focusing on economic development issues first.”
Additional reporting by Gloria Cheung in Hong Kong and Minnie Advincula in Manila