Manila searches for low-hanging fruit in maritime row with Beijing

By Maria Eloisa I. Calderon / BusinessWorldOnline/ August 19, 2016

MASINLOC, ZAMBALES — Sixty-three-year-old Fred Manzano earnestly remembers how he and his fellow fishermen would hop onto Vietnamese boats those nights they navigated the waters surrounding Scarborough Shoal, a fishing ground whose resources he said were shared with their peers from another part of Asia.

Sailing off the coast of Masinloc to Scarborough Shoal would take them 18 hours when the waves were kind, and with their boats moored there for three nights, a drink freely offered by the Vietnamese fishermen was a relief.

“The Vietnamese would wave at us gesturing like ‘come.’ I’d jump onto their boat and there they’d give us hot coffee or tea. I really like their coffee,” Mr. Manzano, whose last trip to Scarborough was three years ago, said in Filipino.

“We understood each other only by hand signals,” he recounted, adding that the foreign-speaking strangers had become his “friends.”

The accounts of fishermen from this coastal community — which while tiny could play a big role in an entire nation’s fight for traditional fishing rights in the resource-rich area — could be proof that Scarborough Shoal, or Bajo de Masinloc to the Philippines, is common fishing ground for Filipinos and Vietnamese alike as well as for the Chinese and other nationalities.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, in its landmark July 12 decision, did not rule on sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal but said that China’s blocking of access to it since 2012 is illegal.

The arbitration court hammered home its finding that the “Scarborough Shoal has traditionally been used as a fishing ground by fishermen from different states” in a statement that followed the Hague ruling.

“Although the Tribunal emphasized that it was not deciding sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, it found that China had violated its duty to respect the traditional fishing rights of Philippine fishermen by halting access to the Shoal after May 2012,” read the Hague court statement released also on July 12.

“The Tribunal noted, however, that it would reach the same conclusion with respect to the traditional fishing rights of Chinese fishermen if the Philippines were to prevent fishing by Chinese nationals at Scarborough Shoal.”

Since which party owns it was an issue not settled, Scarborough Shoal is low-hanging fruit that could provide the take-off point for bilateral talks between Manila and Beijing, two members of the delegation that fought the Philippine case at the Hague said.

It’s neutral ground for discussions that would not be tantamount to giving up gains from the arbitration — nor would it mean abandoning the legal track which was something critics of bilateral talks earlier feared given mixed signals from the Duterte administration on its China policy.

“We have to sit down with China and decide the ground rules on fishing in a common area — what’s the allowable catch for each country, what are the protocols so they would not quarrel because we have to have sustained fishing there… We must agree on how many tons a year each country can take. That shoal cannot satisfy everybody,” Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio told BusinessWorld in an interview on Aug. 11.

Albert F. Del Rosario, under whose term as Foreign Affairs secretary the Philippines sought arbitration on its maritime dispute with a regional power and scored a historical victory, said: “It’s a good idea especially as both China and the Philippines are allowed to fish there.”

“There should be a modus vivendi that could be established. That could be a beginning,” he said.

“At the end of the day, you’re looking for a finality in terms of adhering to what has been passed by the award.”

The Philippines has not gone that far yet. But at the conclusion of his visit to Hong Kong last weekend, former President Fidel V. Ramos — whom President Rodrigo R. Duterte sent as personal envoy — hinted that Manila and Beijing could sit down for “formal” talks soon.

In what’s viewed as symbolic confidence-building rather than a substantial gesture, Mr. Ramos said his meeting with Fu Ying — chairperson of the foreign affairs committee of the National People’s Congress and herself China’s former ambassador to the Philippines — covered fishing rights.

“Cooperation” — mentioned in the joint statement issued by the two from Hong Kong and dated Aug. 11 — is emerging as the option for a country that cannot hope to match China’s military and economic prowess. Read more…

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