MANILA, Philippines – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to issue a formal order declaring a sprawling lagoon in a disputed South China Sea shoal a maritime sanctuary where Filipinos and Chinese will be prohibited from fishing, officials said in a statement Monday.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said Duterte relayed his plan to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the just-concluded Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru.
Esperon and other Philippine Cabinet officials present at the meeting said Xi did not say whether he agreed to Duterte’s plan in the Scarborough Shoal.
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China seized Scarborough in 2012 after a tense maritime standoff with the Philippines. Duterte’s plan is delicate because it may imply Philippine territorial control in a strategic shoal, which Chinese coast guard ships have closely guarded.
Both governments have also mutually suspected each other of harbouring plans to erect concrete structures in the Scarborough’s shallow lagoon to cement their territorial claims.
If Duterte’s plan proceeds, Filipino, Chinese and other fishermen would only be allowed to fish in the deeper waters just outside Scarborough, which has a vast triangular-shaped lagoon naturally fenced by coral outcrops with an entryway watched by Chinese coast guard personnel.
“You can go in but … don’t fish because it’s a maritime sanctuary,” Duterte’s Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said.
After taking control of Scarborough, which lies off the northwestern Philippines, Chinese coast guard personnel shooed away Filipino fishermen, at times with the use of water cannons or by deploying armed personnel on speed boats to chase them off.