PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte will soon issue an executive order making the lagoon portion of Scarborough Shoal a “marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone,” which is now being guarded by Chinese Coast Guard ships, officials said Monday.
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared receptive to Duterte’s idea of turning the shoal into a sanctuary, which would have the effect of banning all fishing inside the shoal but not around it during their second bilateral meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima.
“We will mobilize government forces to promote our agreements, step up guidance to create a favorable environment,” Andanar said quoting Xi.
But a maritime expert on Monday said the planned executive order declaring Scarborough Shoal a marine sanctuary would only benefit China, the country claiming almost all of the disputed South China Sea.
Maritime expert and University of the Philippines professor Jay Batongbacal said Duterte’s plan would be “counterproductive” as it will prevent Filipino fishermen from fishing in the Shoal.
“If the effect of the EO is to keep our fishermen from fishing on the shoal, it will be counterproductive,” Batongbacal said.
“Even if it’s supposed to be an exercise of sovereignty, the practical effect is to stop the actual use of our presence in the area. That only benefits China and ties our hands to stop our own people from going there.”
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said that while the President “will issue an executive order” to effect the changes, the changes as of the time being were “unilateral.”
Xi was quoted by state news agency Xinhua promising Duterte that fishermen would continue to have access to the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.
“The Chinese leader [vowed] that the fishermen will continue to have free access to their traditional fishing grounds, apart from offering them training such as in fish culture to sustain their livelihood and families,” the statement said.
Xi likewise stressed to Duterte that the two nations “should move their relations in the right direction and commit to friendly cooperation, proper management of their differences and common development.”
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said turning the shoal into a sanctuary was an effective way of diffusing the territorial dispute with China.
Xi said China and the Philippines were faced with a new situation. Xi called on both sides to boost exchanges at all levels, discuss major issues of common concern quickly and restore bilateral mechanisms in various fields in order to enhance mutual trust and cooperation.
China in early 2012 seized control of the Scarborough Shoal and deployed navy and coastguard vessels to prevent Philippine fishermen from working in the rich fishing grounds nearby.
However, following Duterte’s state visit to China last month, the Chinese coastguard vessels left the vicinity, allowing the fishermen to return.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12 ruled that China, which claims virtually the entire South China Sea, had “violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.”