China’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday declined to say if it supported an executive order by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declaring part of the disputed Scarborough Shoal a marine sanctuary off-limits to fishermen.
The dispute over the Scarborough Shoal is one of several involving South East Asian countries seeking to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Since 2012, China has deployed its coastguard to block the shoal from Filipinos, despite its location within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
Duterte plans to make a unilateral declaration barring fishermen from exploiting marine life at a tranquil lagoon that was central to years of bitter squabbling, and the basis of an arbitration case brought, and won, by the Philippines.
The move, announced on Monday, was backed by Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Duterte’s office has said.
Asked about the announcement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had made “appropriate arrangements” in the spirit of friendship to allow Philippine fishermen to operate around the shoal.
“China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction of Huangyan Island has not and will not change,” Geng told a daily news briefing, using the Chinese name for the shoal.
Xi and Duterte met on Saturday on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Lima, the Peruvian capital, and pledged to maintain the momentum of improving relations, Geng added.
“We hope China and the Philippines can continue to strengthen dialogue and cooperation, and make the South China Sea issue a positive factor in promoting bilateral friendship and cooperation,” Geng said.
He made no mention of Duterte’s marine sanctuary move.
The establishment of a protected marine zone, if successful, could give both countries a face-saving way to break the diplomatic deadlock without making a political agreement or formal concessions.
According to the plan announced by the Philippine president’s office, fishermen of both countries can cast nets on the fringes of the lagoon, but not inside it, allowing fish stocks to be replenished.
It is the latest gesture towards China in what has been an astonishing reversal of Philippine foreign policy under Duterte, who opted to befriend Beijing while admonishing longtime ally the United States for what he calls hypocrisy and bullying.
China has softened its stance since Duterte returned from a high-profile trip to Beijing in October. Filipino fishermen who went near the shoal said China’s coastguard was no longer driving them away, as it had done over the past four years.