Duterte’s South China Sea sanctuary offers fresh hope for peace


BANGKOK: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has planned to declare a maritime sanctuary and no-fishing zone at a lagoon within the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The idea is an interesting one and offers a potential solution to international disputes over South China Sea territory — but only if it is jointly agreed and enforced by all sides in the dispute.

Duterte’s action would be unilateral and thus potentially represent a big loss for the Philippines, whose fishermen would be barred from the sanctuary. It is not yet clear whether China, the other main claimant, would reciprocate by instructing its own fishing fleet to steer clear of the lagoon.

Duterte disclosed the idea to Chinese President Xi Jinping when they met on Nov 19 on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.

Why he chose to go it alone rather than negotiate a joint plan on the sanctuary with Beijing remains a mystery. After all, Duterte recently forged a rapprochement with China and is now on good terms with its leaders.

Scarborough Shoal is better known to Filipinos as Panatag, an area they have fished for generations. That practice ended in 2012 when China seized the shoal, before the Chinese coast guard relented last month and offered Filipino fishermen access as a gesture amid warmer ties following Duterte’s Beijing trip.

Duterte wants to preserve the Shoal as a spawning ground and envisions the ban extending to Chinese boats. However, Filipino fishermen have voiced opposition to the plan, complaining it would eradicate a major source of their income and at the same time hand jurisdiction to the Chinese coast guard.

Nonetheless, Duterte has taken the initiative in the South China Sea, which is the focus of long-standing disputes between countries in the region. Beijing’s claim to as much as 90 per cent of the contested waters encompasses territories also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

At stake are huge oilfields reckoned to lie beneath the seabed, though so far no country in the region has tested that theory.