Disputed atoll to become 'marine sanctuary'

MANILA • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will soon sign an executive order declaring a vast lagoon inside the disputed Scarborough Shoal a "maritime sanctuary", his aides said yesterday.

The "no-fishing zone" will cover a triangle-shaped area that is a fifth the size of Singapore, national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon on Sunday told reporters covering the Apec summit in Lima, Peru.

"It is our position not to have fishing activities inside the triangle," he said. Mr Esperon said Mr Duterte informed Chinese President Xi Jinping about his plan when they met for bilateral talks in Peru on Saturday.

STILL A GOOD HARVEST

The catch just outside is actually good.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER HERMOGENES ESPERON, referring to the area outside Scarborough's lagoon and how banning fishermen from the lagoon would have little effect on their harvests.

Communications Minister Martin Andanar described Mr Xi's response as "receptive". "(Mr Xi) said: 'We will mobilise government forces to promote our agreements, step up guidance to create a favourable environment'," said Mr Andanar.

Mr Esperon said declaring that area in the South China Sea a "sanctuary" would ensure a healthy fish stock there. Ringed by a rocky atoll that protects it from strong currents and typhoons, Scarborough's lagoon is an ideal spawning ground, he said.

Mr Esperon said banning fishermen from the lagoon would have little effect on their harvests. China has been keeping them out of the lagoon anyway, he said.

"The catch just outside is actually good," he added.

China seized Scarborough Shoal, located about 220km west of the Philippines' coasts, after a two-month stand-off with the Philippines in 2012. Chinese Coast Guard ships then began chasing away Filipinos attempting to fish around the shoal.

Scarborough Shoal is part of a chain of islands in the South China Sea being fought over by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

In his state visit to China last month, Mr Duterte and Mr Xi reached a "handshake agreement" to let Filipino fishermen return to the shoal.

Since Oct 25, China's Coast Guard has not disturbed fishing boats from the Philippines, but it continues to guard a narrow passageway to the lagoon.

Raul Dancel

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline 'Disputed atoll to become 'marine sanctuary''. Print Edition | Subscribe