South China Sea maritime diplomacy hurts Filipino fishermen


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.

Konflikt China Philippinen – Fischerboote nördlich von Manila (Ted Aljibe/AFP/GettyImages)
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.