No word on Panatag fishermen

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star
No word on Panatag fishermen
Children holding Chinese and Philippine flags wait to greet President Duterte in Beijing yesterday.

BEIJING – It was supposed to be a centerpiece of his mission: President Duterte had said he wanted China to stop preventing Filipinos from fishing in Panatag or Scarborough Shoal.

But Duterte and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping did not discuss whether China would open Panatag to Filipino fishermen, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said yesterday, an outcome likely to disappoint the Philippines.

Instead the two leaders agreed to hold bilateral talks on the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea row, Liu said.

Duterte had previously said he would ask Beijing to allow Filipino fishermen to again operate in the area even as The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration had ruled the Philippines and China both have traditional fishing rights in the area.

“The two presidents did not mention the issue of the Huangyan Island (Panatag Shoal) but they did talk about the cooperation in fishery. They agreed that the two countries will strengthen fishery cooperation in the South China Sea and also cooperation in terms of fishery products, industries,” Liu told reporters in an interview here.

China would lift restrictions on imports of tropical fruit from the Philippines and also cancel a travel advisory that had discouraged Chinese tourists from going to the Philippines, Liu said.

The two sides will also have more exchange of views on the fishery cooperation and China will make proper arrangements, Liu said.

Liu said China would also support the Philippines in developing aquaculture and fishery products processing “to help deliver a better life for the fishermen of the Philippines.”

Bilateral talks

Liu told reporters the leaders only touched on the sea dispute briefly during their meeting.

“Both sides agreed that the South China Sea issue is not the sum total of the bilateral relationship,” Liu said.

While not mentioning the South China Sea specifically, Xi said the two sides could set aside “issues on which an agreement is hard to reach” in their discussions, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Xi said the meeting with Duterte had “milestone significance.” In a reference to the South China Sea tensions, Xi said that “although we have weathered storms, the basis of our friendship and our desire for cooperation has not changed.”

Liu said the agreement to hold dialogues signaled the “full recovery” of the friendship between the two countries.

“The two presidents agreed that China and the Philippines will return to track of dialogue and consultation to properly handle the South China Sea issue. This in itself signifies a new stage of maritime cooperation between the two countries,” Liu said.

“China is ready for discussions with our friends in the Philippines on maritime cooperation and cooperation in many other areas. And the details will be further discussed by the responsible authorities of both sides following this visit,” he added.

Philippine officials have yet to issue a statement on the bilateral meeting.

The Philippines’ decision to hold dialogues with China on the maritime dispute is a departure from the policy of the Aquino administration, which insisted that the issue be settled through multilateral channels.

The move appeared to be a diplomatic victory for Beijing several months after the ruling of the arbitral tribunal.

The talks had been suspended after China seized control of Panatag Shoal and the Philippines launched the arbitration process under former president Benigno Aquino III.

The Philippines has in the past insisted that the ruling form the basis for any negotiations with China, while Beijing has insisted on the opposite.

Turning a new page

Liu said Duterte’s four-day state visit was a “historic one” because it brought Philippines-China relations “back to the track of friendship.”

“It marks the new stage of the practical cooperation between the two countries that it means that a new page is now open between the two countries in addressing the South China Sea issue through bilateral consultations,” the Chinese foreign ministry official said.

“The two sides have agreed to fully recover the interactions between the two countries including the diplomatic consultation, the defense security consultation and recover the work of various bilateral working mechanisms such as the joint committee on commerce and trade, on agriculture, on science and technology,” he added.

Political parties and legislative bodies of the Philippines and China are also expected to hold interactions in many areas.

“China will also take an active part in the infrastructure development in the Philippines and provide financing support to the Philippines in this aspect,” Liu said.

Panatag Shoal is the fishing ground China seized in 2012 and which became the crux of the China-Philippines territorial dispute.

The Philippines went to the arbitral tribunal to press for its maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea and won in all of its arguments, including the lack of basis for China’s nine-dash line claiming the whole of the South China Sea.


Duterte met with Xi as part of a charm offensive aimed at seeking trade and support from the Asian giant by setting aside the thorny territorial dispute. – AP

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