Duterte eyes China's green light for Filipinos to fish at shoal

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte attending a news conference during his visit in Beijing.
President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte attending a news conference during his visit in Beijing. PHOTO: REUTERS

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed hope that China will soon allow Filipinos to fish around a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, just 220km west of the Philippines.

"We just wait for a few more days. We may be able to go back to Scarborough (Shoal)," Mr Duterte said in a speech yesterday during relief operations for victims of Typhoon Haima in Tuguegarao city, 480km north of Manila.

It was not immediately clear if that meant China would end its four-year blockade of the shoal.

Mr Duterte told reporters last Saturday - shortly after arriving home from a four-day state visit to China - that he would "leave it to the Chinese authorities (as to) what they will do in the next few days".

Reuters reported that two sources with ties to the Chinese leadership said Beijing would consider giving Filipinos "conditional access" to Scarborough Shoal.

China seized control of the shoal after a two-month stand-off with the Philippines in 2012.

The United States mediated a deal and both sides were told to withdraw. The Philippines pulled out its ships, but China stayed and later roped off the mouth of a lagoon, sealing off the entire atoll.

Since then, China has been chasing fishermen away from Scarborough Shoal.

There were at least three encounters with the Chinese coast guard reported last month, even as Mr Duterte pleaded with China to ease its blockade around the shoal.

Mr Duterte confirmed yesterday that he had raised the South China Sea dispute with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but that in the end he decided not to press it.

"(Xi) said, '(The South China Sea) is ours historically and we will not give it up.' I told him, 'Neither would we because we won in court,'" he recounted.

In July, an international tribunal sided with the Philippines and struck down China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, where US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) worth of trade passes through every year.

Mr Duterte said Mr Xi asked him what his plan was. "I told him I will not argue because I don't see any good solution if we end up killing each other," he said.

Mr Duterte's latest comments on the South China Sea come as he prepares for an official visit to Japan from tomorrow to Thursday.

He has said he would discuss "mostly economic cooperation and shared interests" while there, but that he was willing to talk about the South China Sea should Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raise it.

Mr Abe is set to hold one-to-one talks with Mr Duterte at his residence in Tokyo on Wednesday, following a larger, more formal meeting with senior officials.

The Japanese Embassy has said an "agreement or consensus" on "the possibility of cooperation enclosing maritime security and defence cooperation... is expected".

This includes deals, already concluded, on Japan supplying the Philippines with multi-role ships and long-range surveillance planes.

Mr Duterte will visit Japan Marine United's dry dock in Yokohama city - near Tokyo - where ships for the Philippine Coast Guard are being built.

Japan has already delivered one vessel and is set to deliver nine more next June.

Mr Duterte will meet Japanese Emperor Akihito before heading back to Manila on Thursday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte eyes China's green light for Filipinos to fish at shoal'. Print Edition | Subscribe