Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Sunday that Filipino fishermen may be able to return to the Chinese-held Scarborough Shoal in a few days after he discussed the territorial rift with Chinese leaders, but he did not provide details, including whether China imposed conditions.
Duterte said that in talks during his trip to Beijing this past week, he insisted that the shoal off his country's northwestern coast belonged to the Philippines, but added that the Chinese also asserted their claim of ownership.
If Filipinos could sail back to Scarborough, a traditional fishing ground and storm shelter, Duterte said they would be prohibited from fishing inside a sprawling lagoon that is a fish spawning ground that should be protected.
"We'll just wait for a few more days. We may be able to return to Scarborough Shoal, the fishing by our countrymen," Duterte said in a speech in the northern city of Tuguegarao, where he visited after the region was lashed by a super typhoon.
Considering the delicate role of Scarborough's shallow lagoon, which is a spawning area for tuna and other fish, "I myself said that if we're able to sail back to Scarborough Shoal as its owner - and they insist they are also the owner - I myself will say, `Don't fish there,"' Duterte said.
"What I know is he has also asked the Chinese fishermen to go away so there won't be anybody who'll be seen there," he said without identifying the Chinese leader he talked with. "That's what we discussed. I'm not sure if they'll fulfill that."
China effectively took control of Scarborough in 2012 after its ships had a tense standoff with Philippine vessels.
Then-President Benigno Aquino III said U.S. officials brokered a deal for a simultaneous withdrawal of the ships. Aquino withdrew his government's ships, but said China reneged on the verbal deal and went on to control Scarborough.
Since then, Chinese coast guard ships have guarded the shoal, blocking and driving away Filipino fishermen, who complained that the Chinese at times used water cannons or dangerously chased them away while yelling, through a bullhorn, that they were barging into Chinese territory.
In 2013, Aquino's administration brought its territorial disputes with China to international arbitration, a move that China ignored. In a landmark ruling in July, an international tribunal in The Hague invalidated China's historic claims in the South China Sea and ruled that the Chinese government violated the Filipinos' right to fish in Scarborough, which it declared a traditional fishing ground.
China ignored the ruling and continued shooing Filipinos away from the shoal.