SCARBOROUGH SHOAL • Far out in the South China Sea, where dark blue meets bright turquoise, a miles-long row of fishing boats anchor near Scarborough Shoal, backed by a small armada of coast guards projecting China's power in Asia's most disputed waters.
China still calls the shots at the prime fishing spot and has boosted its fleet there, nine months after an international panel ruled that its blockade of the lagoon was illegal.
Beijing rejected that ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated China's claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. But the presence of Philippine boats dotted between Chinese vessels shows a degree of compliance with the ruling.
Overtures from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is negotiating billions of dollars worth of loans, investments and trade deals with China, may have helped.
China stopped repelling Filipino boats last October and allowed them to fish on the edges of the rocky outcrop, 200km from the Philippines. Now it appears to be easing restrictions further.
Reuters journalists last week entered the Scarborough Shoal and witnessed dozens of small boats shuttling day and night into the lagoon to capitalise on its rich fish stocks. "It's good that we're now allowed inside, it helps me to support my family's needs," said Mr Vicente Palawan, treading water inside the lagoon, a dive mask on his head and fishing spear in hand.
The coral outcrop is synonymous with the struggle for regional power. Scarborough is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, besides China and the Philippines.
Despite China's concessions, its presence is growing, with a larger contingent of coast guards and fishing boats than was indicated in satellite imagery late last year. That fuels concerns from Manila that Beijing may have ambitions for the shoal, similar to the artificial islands it built and fortified in the Spratly archipelago, inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
For now, there is a cordial coexistence between the Filipinos and Chinese, who anchor side by side less than 100m from the 46km triangle of rock that barely pokes above the water.
Chinese in straw hats zig-zag from boat to boat, using hand signals to barter with Filipinos for cigarettes, liquor and fish. Small boats hum as they move in and out of the lagoon, through a buffering line of coral that has, for centuries, provided fishermen with bountiful catches and haven from storms.
In crowded, rickety boats, Filipinos are outnumbered about 10-to-one and they complain of competition from the beefed-up Chinese contingent.
"We used to fish for a few days, now it's a few weeks, but at least we have something," said Mr Ramil Rosal, a boat captain and fisherman for 20 years. "The Chinese are fishing more, and Filipinos have to share with them. But they don't bother us. Some are helpful."
A half-dozen vessels from the China Marine Surveillance enforce their rules in an area the arbitration court in The Hague declared a traditional fishing site for all parties. It did not rule on sovereignty of the shoal. Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo said the improved access was "certainly in line with the arbitral ruling".
Fishermen told Reuters China's coast guard prohibits larger vessels from entering the lagoon, but allows small two-man boats to fish there freely. "It applies to Chinese and Filipinos," Mr Rosal said.
Coast guards in high-powered dinghies are sometimes dispatched from large vessels to get a closer look as unfamiliar boats arrive.
China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters' questions about the shoal. Its recent comments were vague, stating only that the situation was unchanged.
While the situation at Scarborough has improved, tensions remain high. Reports last month that China planned to build an environmental monitoring station at Scarborough sparked consternation in the Philippines. President Duterte said he could not stop China, but had been assured of no construction "out of respect for our friendship".