MANILA – When the Philippines and China sit down for bilateral talks in May, Manila may seek to ensure that there would be no militarization or reclamation activities in the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana said Tuesday.
In an interview with ANC’s headstart, Sta. Romana said recent incursions at the shoal, located just 220 kms off the coast of Zambales, would be among points of discussion between the two sides at the revival of bilateral talks next month.
“Scarborough shoal will of course be a topic of discussion,” he said.
Pressed what Manila may be expected to ask of Beijing, the envoy said: “[N]o militarization, no reclamation, all these issues in Scarborough Shoal.”
“The whole point of this is how to ease the tensions in the West Philippine Sea, the South China Sea,” he told ANC’s Headstart.
Home to rich marine resources, the Scarborough Shoal is one of the areas contested by the Philippines, China and several other Southeast Asian nations. It is located within the West Philippine Sea, the country’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
Manila initiated arbitration proceedings against Beijing before the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal in January 2013, months after a tense naval standoff at the shoal, where China exercised unilateral maritime authority, routinely driving away Filipino fishermen.
In July 2016, the international tribunal handed down a landmark ruling invalidating China’s nine-dash line claim over almost all of the South China Sea.
It also declared the Scarborough Shoal as traditional fishing grounds open to fishermen from the Philippines, China and other countries.
After President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Beijing last year, the Palace said there were indications that the Chinese Coast Guard had left the shoal, and that Filipino fishermen could again go fishing in the area.
Reports, however, indicate that Chinese coast guard ships were still manning the mouth of the lagoon, even as fishermen could freely enter the shoal.
Sta. Romana meanwhile explained that the Chinese coast guard ship should not be confused with that from the Navy. It is there, he said, “because the lagoon is where the fingerlings, the fish are. That’s where they reproduce.”
“There is a broad consensus to preserve this as a marine sanctuary and you let the fish grow and you wait for them outside, and that is where the fishing is happening,” he said.
He also emphasized that “fishing rights is different from the sovereignty claim.”
“The question of who owns Scarborough Shoal was not settled by the tribunal award. It’s still a standing issue. The Chinese claims it’s theirs and that’s why they still keep their coast guard there as they did before,” he said.