The Chinese coastguard appears to have left the contested Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, according to Philippine officials.
“There is no sign of Chinese coastguard vessels in the area. While we do not have any official explanation for this, it sends a positive signal regarding relations,” Ernesto Abella, a spokesman for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was quoting as saying at the weekend by Agence France-Presse.
“This is a welcome development, especially for Filipino fisherfolk.”
Filipino fisherman spent three days near the shoal last week without being chased away by Chinese vessels.
A week earlier, Duterte stunned the world by announcing his “separation from the United States” — in military and economic terms — to form a new alliance with China and Russia.
Duterte requested the fishing concession during his trip to Beijing. It appears his shift to China is paying off.
Filipino fishermen have been denied access to Scarborough Shoal since China seized control of it in 2012.
Beijing was furious when an international tribunal ruled against Chinese maritime claims in the area this year.
But the apparent fishing concession sends a message to the region that accepting China’s claims comes with rewards.
China appears to have convinced Duterte to move towards an “independent” foreign policy which in reality means greater Chinese influence over Manila and across the region.
Duterte may feel he can play China off against the US — using Beijing’s sweeteners to gain concessions from Washington and regional allies such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea.
The firebrand President is gambling with decades of complex alliances and treaties, although he offered hope of a backdown on Thursday when he announced Japan would remain a key maritime partner and joint military exercises could be possible.
But his opposition to US-Philippine military exercises and operations in Mindanao, in the south, raises a crucial question for Australia.
Last month Australian Secret Intelligence Service director-general Nick Warner warned of Islamic State affiliates in the southern Philippines. He said it was likely that Islamic State was seeking to establish a branch in the area.
We should step up and provide Australian defence advisers to The Philippines’ armed forces, although there’s no guarantee Duterte would accept the offer.
Malcolm Davis is senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Anthony Bergin is senior research fellow at ANU’s National Security College and senior analyst at ASPI.