The situation at the contested Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea “has not changed and will not change”, China said on Monday. This after the Philippines said Chinese ships that barred the area for four years had stopped bullying its fishermen.
On Sunday, Philippine security officials said China had reduced its naval presence at the shoal. The change occurred after President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Beijing. Duterte’s state visit was intended at mending ties and wooing investment.
The conditions behind China’s seeming softening of its position are unclear, though the disputed territory is important for the expansive balance of power in the South China Sea.
Hua Chunying, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, was questioned about Philippine fishermen entering the area unhindered. She said China at all times had “normal administration” over the Scarborough Shoal.
“The relevant situation has not changed and will not change,” she told a regular briefing.
Hua said Duterte’s trip to Beijing demonstrated a general improvement in relations.
Since appropriating the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, China had prevented fishermen from fishing in the area.
Philippine fishermen said that Chinese boats had left them alone as they returned from the area during the weekend with loads of fish.
It infuriated the Chinese when the previous Philippine government filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013. This was after China started blocking its fishermen from the prime fishing spot.
The tribunal ruled in July in favor of the Philippines, which China declines to accept. The court declared that no one country had sovereign rights over the shoal. Further, as a customary fishing ground, Philippine, Chinese and Vietnamese were entitled to access it.
Duterte thaws the ice
After Duterte took office four months ago, a frigid Philippine-China relationship improved considerably. The Philippine president began praising China as he denounced long-standing ally the United States in a reversal of his predecessor’s foreign policy.
Hermogenes Esperon, Duterte’s national security adviser, confirmed there had been no arrangement between the two countries about the Scarborough Shoal.
The dispute had not been settled and the Philippines would reaffirm its rights when bilateral talks resume, he said. Though he acknowledged that “the climate has changed”.
“They have coastguard ships there, there are no more navy ships and our fishermen are no longer accosted, they are not driven away,” Esperon said.