On Friday, following initial reports by Philippine fishermen that they had been able to access Scarborough Shoal — the primary South China Sea flashpoint between China and Japan — Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that Chinese vessels had left the area.
Effectively, for the first time since 2012, when China seized the shoal from the Philippines, Philippine fishermen appear to have some access to fisheries near the shoal. It’s unclear if fishermen can access the Scarborough lagoon unimpeded.
“Since three days ago there are no longer Chinese ships, coastguard or navy, in the Scarborough area,” Lorenzana told reporters, according to Reuters.
“If the Chinese ships have left then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area.”
The Chinese foreign and defense ministries, asked about Scarborough Shoal at various press conferences in the aftermath, did not suggest that the Shoal would be immediately available to Filipino fishermen.
One expert told The Diplomat that fishermen from the Philippines were unable to access the Shoal as recently as this Monday, but have been able to fish there from Tuesday onward.
“This is a positive sign, but it’s too early to say there has been a deal. Reports are that China wants a deal under which it ‘allows’ access to the Shoal, which is unacceptable language to Manila,” Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Diplomat.
“It’s also unclear whether any eventual deal would involve access to the lagoon itself, which Chinese sources and Duterte himself have suggested would remain closed, or just the outside of the reef,” Poling adds.
For China, the decision to open up Scarborough Shoal to Philippine fishermen may have both bilateral and broader diplomatic value.
“This seems to be a very smart move from Beijing. On the surface, they are demonstrating the rewards of bilateral talks while at a more substantial level they are actually bringing themselves into compliance with the Arbitration Tribunal ruling,” Bill Hayton, associate fellow at Chatham House, told The Diplomat.
Hayton adds that there’s “little to stop the China Coastguard” from coming back to the Shoal should diplomacy with the Philippines encounter difficulties.
This could pose difficulties for the government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, which could be seen as losing Scarborough Shoal one again should Beijing decide that bilateralism is bearing little fruit.
“The big question must be whether Manila has promised anything in exchange — such as a recognition of China’s territorial claim,” Hayton cautions.
“That would be deeply problematic for the region.”
Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping have resolved to carry bilateral talks on the South China Sea forward over the next year.
Scarborough Shoal has sat as the centerpiece of broader China-Philippine maritime disputes in the South China Sea since a stand-off between the two countries in 2012.
China’s seizing of the shoal after the conclusion of that standoff prompted the previous Philippine government of President Benigno Aquino III to file a case before a five-judge tribunal at The Hague, sharply strained China-Philippines ties.
For the United States, a treaty ally to the Philippines, concerns had grown earlier this year that Beijing would look to bring its artificial island construction activities to the Shoal.
Since 2012, Scarborough Shoal has also increasingly risen in prominence among ordinary Filipinos. Civil society groups like Kalayaan Atin Ito have sought to draw attention to the China Coastguard’s activities at the Shoal.