The Scarborough Shoal has been declared a marine sanctuary by Philippine President Duterte. Touted as a solution for territorial tensions, does the move play into Chinese interests? Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.
At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation(APEC) summit in Peru last month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the contested waters around the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea (SCS) would become a maritime sanctuary and be off limits to fishing. Fishermen who depend on the fishing grounds around the shoal to make a living are confused and angry at the decision.
Duterte made the announcement at the forum after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at APEC. It was the second time that Duterte declared plans for the shoal after a meeting with China.
For Philippine fishermen, the protected status of the shoal is an unwelcome turnaround after having once again been given access to the area in mid-October. Duterte then had just returned to the Philippines from an official state visit to China with $24 billion in soft loans and a promise that Filipino fishermen could fish again in Scarborough.
China had banned Filipino fishermen from the Scarborough Shoal after taking control of the area in 2012, but lifted restrictions after Duterte's visit in October.
When it was declared that the disputed shoal would become a marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone, Leonardo Cuaresma, a fisherman in the region near the shoal, was still trying to figure out what President Duterte meant by his first announcement in October.
"This means fishing will not be allowed. But he (Duterte) just said we could fish there again - what does he really mean? We are so confused," said Cuaresma, who heads a federation of nearly 20 fishermen's associations in Masinloc, a fishing community located 230 kilometers (140 miles) from the shoal in Zambales province on the west coast of the Philippines' largest island, Luzon.
The lagoon around the Scarborough Shoal is teeming with a vast variety of fish in a disputed portion of the South China Sea. It is a fertile fishing ground and crucial shipping artery where an estimated $5 trillion worth of trade passes through every year.
According to Cuaresma, an estimated 30 percent of the around 4,000 fishermen in Masinloc were affected by the blockade and were forced to fish in nearby municipal waters and compete with other fishermen over a dwindling catch.
Caught in a geopolitical current
The Philippines and China have been at loggerheads over control of the Scarborough Shoal since 2012 when the Chinese Coast Guard seized control of the shoal, chasing away Filipino fishermen and hosing them down with water cannons.
In response to the blockade, Manila brought the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. In July, the court ruled in favor of Manila,saying that China's territorial claims were excessive and encroached on the Philippines' right to a 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometer) exclusive economic zone where the Scarborough Shoal lies.
But instead of enforcing the ruling, Duterte chose a friendly diplomatic approachto China as he turned his back on the US, a long-time ally of the Philippines.
"China is very clear about stating their claim. Our president hasn't said anything except that we can now fish there. Now he wants to turn it into a marine sanctuary," said Laureno Artagame, chairman of a provincial group of fishermen associations in Subic Bay. "We (fishermen's associations) were not even consulted about this decision," he added.
Both Cuaresma and Artegame are worried about the implications and the enforcement of the marine protected area. "The President can forbid Filipino fishermen from going to Scarborough but can he forbid the Chinese from doing whatever they want there?" said Cuaresma.
"It will be a prohibited area for Filipinos but for the Chinese, it will be an open fishing area," said Artagame, who fears an uneven enforcement of boundaries.
Philippines tying its own hands?
Eduardo Gongona, Executive Director of the Philippines' Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), told DW that the marine sanctuary was a good decision. "It will prevent and eliminate all forms of destructive and unsustainable fishing essential to the conservation of biodiversity," he said.
Gongona remained confident that the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy had the capability to enforce the marine protected area once the ruling is implemented. Although he admitted that the fishermen had not been consulted, he said that BFAR would visit fishing communities to explain the benefits of making the Scarborough Shoal a no-fishing zone.
However, other countries that also fish in the contested waters may not be as understanding. "In principle, a marine sanctuary makes perfect sense to conserve precious resources and de-escalate sovereignty tensions, not to mention promote environmental cooperation," Richard Heydarian, a geopolitical expert from De La Salle University in Manila, told DW.
"A sanctuary works if and only if all parties observe it, but some reports suggest China continues fishing in the area, so this defeats the whole purpose and could mean the Philippines is simply tying its own hands," Heydarian added.
"Let's wait first for details of the plan's implementation before we look at its possible effect on relations with other countries,” Charles Jose, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, told DW.