THE Palace said this week that President Duterte will soon issue an executive order making a portion of Scarborough Shoal a “marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone”—giving the illusion that he can do with mere words what the Chinese Coast Guard have been enforcing with their ships—keep people out of the disputed lagoon.
In announcing the move, a spokesman for the President said that at their recent meeting in Lima, Peru, Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared receptive to Duterte’s idea of turning the shoal into a sanctuary, which would effectively ban all fishing inside the shoal but not around it.
“We will mobilize government forces to promote our agreements, step up guidance to create a favorable environment,” the spokesman said, giving the impression that Manila had the wherewithal to enforce anything in the disputed shoal.
But Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez’s statement that the changes would be “unilateral” for the time being suggested there was no Chinese buy-in to the President’s plan.
Moreover, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said turning the shoal into a sanctuary would help diffuse the country’s territorial dispute with China, suggesting that President Duterte’s declaration was aimed at appeasing an occupying foreign force—which is how we must view the Chinese ships, if we truly believe that Scarborough Shoal is ours.
When President Duterte returned from his state visit to China in October, much ado was made over the fact that Filipino fishermen were able to return to their traditional fishing grounds in the Scarborough Shoal without being harassed by Chinese ships. Those ships remained, however, much as they have since China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and deployed navy and coast guard vessels to prevent Filipino fishermen from working in the rich fishing grounds nearby.
Not a single word in President Duterte’s upcoming executive order will change the fact that Chinese ships continue to exercise physical control of the shoal that we claim as our own, or that Filipino fishermen have been allowed to re-enter the area only upon the behest of a friendly government in Beijing. This was reinforced by Xi himself, when he was quoted as promising Duterte that Filipino fishermen would continue to have access to the disputed shoal.
In the realpolitik governing the South China Sea, the President’s executive order would be laughable—were it not also a brazen attempt to fool the public into believing that Mr. Duterte had the power to exercise sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal. The sad fact, however, is that the only people who would obey Mr. Duterte’s executive order are Filipino fishermen, whose interests he had promised to protect.