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Duterte to set aside sea dispute during China trip

In this Feb. 27, 2015 photo provided by fisherman Renato Etac, Chinese Coast Guard members approach his fellow fishermen near Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. More than once, the Chinese approached Etac’s boat and pointed their rifles at him, but he says he knew they would not fire and start a war. AP, file
MANILA, Philippines -- Days before leaving for a state visit to China, President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday he would set aside the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal issue for now but vowed to ask the Chinese government to allow Filipino fishermen to go to the area.
 
Duterte is scheduled to visit China from Oct. 18 to 21 to strengthen the ties between Manila and Beijing, which has been strained by the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute.
 
The four-day state visit will come as Duterte is seeking to broaden alliances with China and Russia while engaging in a spat with the United States over his bloody war on illegal drugs.  
 
“Pupunta ako ng China. Okay tayo sa kanila. Huwag muna nating pakialaman yung Scarborough. Di natin kaya. Magalit man tayo, hangin lang (I will go to China. We are okay with them. Let’s not dwell on the Scarborough issue for now. We can’t solve it even if we get angry),” Duterte said during an agrarian reform forum in Lamitan, Basilan.
 
“We will ask them to allow our fishermen brothers to return (to the shoal),” he added.
 
Duterte is optimistic about his talks with the Chinse government, noting that it has already allowed the Philippines to export bananas and pineapple to China.
 
“I suspect that they really want to help us,” the president said.
 
 
Panatag Shoal is located 124 nautical miles from the nearest point in Zambales, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
 
China started occupying the shoal in 2012 after Chinese surveillance ships barred a Philippine Navy vessel from apprehending Chinese fishermen who had poached endangered species. 
 
China has since maintained its presence in the shoal, barring Filipino fishermen from entering the traditional fishing route.
 
Last month, the National Security Council reported that Chinese Coast Guard vessels had harassed Filipino fishermen in Panatag Shoal despite calls by Duterte for China to allow entry in the area.
 
Foreign Affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said in an earlier interview that the Philippines would use “quiet diplomacy” to address the issue.
 
Duterte has repeatedly said that he would not go to war with China over the maritime row because it would result in a “massacre’ of Philippine troops.
 
A Hague-based arbitral tribunal ruled in July that China’s expansive claim in the South China Sea has no legal basis. The claim, which covers virtually the entire South China Sea, including Panatag Shoal, is being contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The court ruled that the Philippines has sovereign rights over the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, and Recto (Reed) Bank, areas located off Palawan that are also being claimed by China.
 
Although the tribunal said it was not ruling on the sovereignty over the Panatag Shoal, it found that China had violated its duty to respect the traditional fishing rights of Filipinos by halting access to the shoal in 2012.
 
Given that the issue of sovereignty over the shoal has yet to be solved, the Philippine government said that whoever owns those rocks has sovereignty or rights of “full ownership” over them including their territorial sea.
 
Solicitor General Jose Calida said last August that the implication of the court’s ruling is that the waters immediately beyond the territorial sea around Panatag Shoal are part of the Philippines’ EEZ.
 
He said the Philippines has “sovereign rights” to explore, exploit, converge and manage the natural resources in its EEZ.
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