Manila (AFP) – Chinese vessels have left the contested Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, a Philippine official said Saturday, less than a week after President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing pledging closer ties.
The firebrand leader used the trip to vaunt his move away from traditional ally the United States in favour of Beijing — which was previously at loggerheads with Manila over the maritime dispute.
China took control of the Scarborough Shoal, 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the main Philippine island of Luzon, in 2012, driving Filipino fishermen away from the rich fishing ground, sometimes using water cannons.
In a case brought by former president Benigno Aquino, the Philippines won a resounding victory at an international tribunal earlier this year over Beijing’s extensive maritime claims in the area, infuriating the Asian giant.
But Duterte has made a point of not flaunting the ruling and President Xi Jingping told the Philippine leader on his recent visit that there was no reason for hostility and difficult topics of discussion “could be shelved temporarily”.
“There is no sign of Chinese coastguard vessels in the area. While we do not have any official explanation for this, it sends a positive signal regarding relations,” Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella told AFP Saturday, referring to the shoal.
“This is a welcome development especially for Filipino fisherfolk.”
Duterte had hinted at the possibility of a Chinese withdrawal directly upon his return from Beijing last week, saying: “We’ll just wait for a few more days. We might be able to return to Scarborough Shoal.”
On Friday, Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana said: “If the Chinese ships have left then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area.”
However the foreign affairs department said they had yet to verify that Chinese vessels had left the shoal.
A report by television network GMA7 said fishermen from the northern province of Pangasinan had returned to shore Saturday with “a huge load of big species of fish” caught at Scarborough Shoal.