China’s coastguard has scaled back interception of Filipino fishermen in disputed waters near the Scarborough Shoal in an apparent friendly gesture toPhilippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte, according to a Philippines defence adviser and a source close to the Chinese navy.
Philippine boats had returned to fish near the shoal in the last three weeks without being apprehended by Chinese vessels, said Professor Rommel Banlaoi, director of the Centre for Intelligence and National Security Studies, a non-government research group in the Philippines.
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The shoal is 230km off the coast of the Philippines and claimed by Manila, Beijing and Taipei.
“[It is] one indication of the positive signs going on,” Banlaoi said on the weekend on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security forum.
He said that another “good sign” was the Philippine navy had been able to conduct patrols near the Manila-controlled Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by Beijing, without harassment from the China Coast Guard. “The incoming president [also] met the Chinese ambassador to Manila,” he said.
Beijing is increasingly assertive in making territorial claims in the South China Sea, prompting US Defence Secretary Ash Carter to accuse China of “erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation”.
A source close to the Chinese navy said Beijing was trying to tone down its hostility towards Manila ahead of an international ruling in a case brought by the Philippines.
“The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to come up with a decision in Manila’s lawsuit against Beijing over the ‘nine dash’ linethis month and this is another key reason for China’s concession in the Scarborough Shoal dispute,” the source said.
Chinese coastguard ships took control of the area after a tense stand-off with Philippine vessels in 2012 and the atoll remains a potential flashpoint.
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Andrei Chang, the founder of military magazine Kanwa Asian Defence, said China had adopted a cautious approach to the shoal issue since the Pentagon warned it might “take action” if Beijing embarked on further reclamation in the area.
“The Scarborough Shoal is very different from other reefs in the Spratly chain … in part because it is so close to US military bases in the Philippines,” Chang said.
Early this year, Manila announced it had opened at least eight of its military bases to US forces, including two air bases in Pampanga, 330km from the Scarborough Shoal.
Li Jie, a Beijing-based military expert, said China would maintain friendly relations before the inauguration of Duterte at the end of this month.