South China Sea: Fishery accords seen as way forward as Philippine Presid Duterte China visit way forward in South China Sea dispute

In this Sept. 8, 2016 file photo, President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in Jakarata, Indonesia. Presidential Communications Office
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MANILA, Philippines – Whether Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping talk about Scarborough Shoal in their first meeting in Beijing, the specter of the triangular-shaped coral reef 124 nautical miles west of Zambales looms large in this landmark visit that signals the rekindling of relations between the two Asian countries severely strained with the filing of the suit before the Hague tribunal by the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III.

A Malacañang source said Duterte will take up the South China Sea issue “if raised” in his four-eyes meeting with Xi on October 20. He will not initiate to raise the issue of the arbitral ruling but will respond if mentioned. However, his key message on the matter of Scraborough shoal will be asserting the fishing rights of Filipinos there, but while this is his wish “he will listen and will not make any imposition on the Chinese side.”

Duterte has laid out this stance in his statement Sunday before he left for Brunei and China.” There are areas of special concern and many are wondering how I would deal with China on the matter of the China Sea or West Philippine Sea. We will stick to our claim. We do not bargain anything there. We continue to insist that that’s ours, and that the tribunal, international decision will be taken up and… but there will be no hard impositions. We will talk and we will, maybe, paraphrase everything in the judgment and set the limits of our territories, the special economic zones. “

Duterte allayed the concern of many that he will be giving away the disputed rock outcrop that has been closely guarded by three Chinese Coast Guard vessels and inaccessible to Filipino fishermen since 2012. “I will be very careful not to bargain anything for after all, I cannot give what is not mine and which I am not empowered to do by any stretch of imagination,” he said.

Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, in his Beijing visit-related press conference at Kamuning Bakery last October 14, articulated what is expected to be China’s position when thorny issue of South China Sea (SCS).

“Even if the SCS issue is touched upon, both sides would like to seek common grounds and we do share some common grounds. First and foremost, both sides are committed to maintaining peace and stability in the SCS and both sides are committed to using peaceful means to settle our dispute and both sides have realized that thru SCS, that our trade is being conducted not only for now but we have conducted trade and people exchanges friendly exchanges for a thousand of years. So from this perspective SCS is not something that is separating China and the Philippines. It has served as a bridge and linked up the two nations and the two peoples. We hope that by working together we can turn this SCS into a sea of peace friendship and cooperation and in particular a sea of cooperation.”

A maritime security expert, retired diplomat Alberto Encomienda, former head of the Foreign Affairs Maritime and Ocean Affairs Office said the Duterte government, behind its seemingly confused statements on the South China Sea issue, is taking the wiser and constructive recourse of separating the geopolitical and geo-economic issues in approaching China.

“And it is gaining ground,” he said.

Encomienda was part of the delegation of retired ambassadors and foreign affairs experts, who went to China last month and met with ranking government officials and think tanks.

“Judging from the initial contacts between China and the Philippines in the immediate aftermath of The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, the bifurcated approach is what maybe shaping up on the ground,” Encomienda said in a forum on Environmental and Maritime Security for the Blue South China Sea in Hai Phong, Vietnam last week.

This is a departure from the multilateral negotiation that the Aquino government earlier maintained.

Presenting his “Proposed Solutions to Maintain Navigation Freedom in the South China Sea after The Hague Ruling,” Encomienda said a resolution on the geo-economic aspects is easier to achieve and can be implemented immediately outside of the sovereignty/political issues, granted the existence of good faith  and goodwill among all concerned states.

Encomienda said China has offered various forms of bilateral cooperation outside of the arbitral award such as fisheries and marine resources, which carry implications of food security, a proposition the Philippines is open to.

At least a dozen Memoranda of Understanding (MOU), including fisheries cooperation will be signed to signal the full normalization of bilateral relations after a challenging period under the Aquino government.

Ambassador Zhao said during the visit, Philippines and China will discuss ways to enhance cooperation in fisheries industry, aiming to develop aquaculture and technologies in fishing, storage, production and marketing. With China being a huge market, they expressed interest in importing fishery products such as Lapu-Lapu, shrimp and crab. He said the Philippines’ bangus is going to be popular in China.

“MOU on fishery because we know President Duterte is concerned about fishermen and we have the market and we have the capital and we have the interest. So that in further developing and engaging in fishery cooperation we can contribute in variety of ways to the welfare of the fishermen,” he said.

The diplomatic impasse between the Philippines and China began in the stand-off at Scarborough shoal when the Philippines sent its naval warship to Scarborough shoal to what would have been a law enforcement operation to arrest Chinese fishermen poaching there. The arbitral ruling has recognized Scarborough shoal as traditional fishing grounds for both Chinese and Filipino fishermen. That stand-off in April 2012, and the Philippines filing of a compulsory arbitration case before the PCA tribunal put the Philippine-China relations at its lowest. China since then had de facto control of the Filipino fishermen.

Encomienda said a reassessment is necessary for a fresh start and move matters towards a peaceful resolution on the regional conflict situation and the post-arbitral ruling would be a good occasion for stocktaking, to serve as new starting point  and being clear on where matters stand in regard to changed paradigms.

In his talk in Vietnam Encomienda said that while “there have been no positive outcomes worthwhile noting in regard to practical and cooperative action to “enforce” nor implement any part of the ruling, he proposed ocean governance cooperation in the South China Sea as a cooperative action against the increasing danger of marine environment and resources degradation due to continuing neglect and lack of cooperation among regional states.

“An anticipated magnified threat to the marine environment and resources due to resulting intensified human activities or behaviors expected among concerned parties in the dispute situation. The challenge to the marine environment would continue for the simple reason that the July 12, 2016 The Hague PCA ruling in favor of the Philippines has not in any manner or measure dissipated regional tensions,” Encomienda said.

He said freedom of navigation which has never been disrupted since the early beginnings of the South China Sea conflict situation, remains an “anticipatory threat.” Three months after the arbitral ruling freedom of navigation for trading vessels and naval vessels have not been disturbed and there have been no recurrence of Freedom of Navigation Operations by foreign naval elements. Encomienda said freedom of navigation must be addressed as an ocean governance concern that will impact on safety and security of navigation and not as a geopolitical issue.

“At the moment, the only way forward is to lighten the political burden, difficult as jurisdictional issues are, and proceeding to focus on addressing non-traditional maritime security concerns around which safety of navigation and shipping routes and Sea Lines of Communication’s must revolve, while managing freedom of navigation in relation to the protection of the marine environment,” Encomienda said.

VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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