MANILA – Chinese ships are no longer at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea and Filipino boats can resume fishing activities following a “welcome development”, the Philippines’ defense minister said Friday.
“Since three days ago there are no longer Chinese ships, coast guard or navy, in the Scarborough area,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters.
“If the Chinese ships have left then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area.”
Lorenzana did not explain the circumstances behind why the Chinese vessels had ended a four-year blockade of the shoal, which was central to an arbitration case that Manila won in July.
The announcement comes amid a dramatic warming of Sino-Philippine relations under President Rodrigo Duterte.
“All I can say is that at this stage it has been observed that there are no longer any Chinese coast guards in the area,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said during a regular press briefing.
The move comes as Duterte, who came to power in June, has been pivoting his country toward China and away from the United States.
In 2012, China seized control of Scarborough Shoal and had since then prevented Philippine fishermen from fishing there.
The Philippines subsequently took the territorial dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which on July 12 ruled against China.
China, which claims virtually the entire South China Sea and all the islands in it, has rejected the ruling, labeling it illegal and invalid.
Duterte has said he will still pursue bilateral talks with Beijing in the absence of a definite enforcing body or mechanism that would implement the ruling.
During his visit to Beijing earlier this month, Dutere and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that bilateral relations should focus less on differences over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea and more on strengthening cooperation.
Xi told Duterte that he believes they can discuss all kinds of issues frankly and manage differences, including those over the disputed sea, as long as they engage in “friendly dialogue and consultation.”