Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s recent trip to Beijing yielded a number of agreements, including a vaguely-worded commitment to peacefully resolve the South China Sea disputes. But there was no public breakthrough on one closely-watched topic: the ability of Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal. An international tribunal ruled on July 12 that China’s closure of the shoal to Philippine fishing was illegal. But in the lead-up to Duterte’s visit, Filipino fishermen complained that it was becoming more, not less, difficult for them to approach Scarborough. Recent satellite imagery supports this conclusion.
In the wake of the July 12 arbitral ruling, the China Coast Guard (CCG) has continued to block Filipino access to Scarborough Shoal. In fact, the number of Chinese coast guard and civilian ships around the shoal has increased since at least early September, hitting levels not seen in satellite imagery since early 2014. On September 3, the Philippine Department of National Defense released photos of 10 Chinese ships—four CCG and six civilian—around the shoal. The number of Chinese ships remained elevated throughout much of September, according to satellite imagery, and there is no telling how many others might have been out of frame or under cloud cover.
The satellite imagery above is noteworthy because not a single Filipino fishing vessel was visible at the shoal on any of the days involved, lending credence to reports that CCG ships have driven off any ships approaching the shoal. Since China seized Scarborough in mid-2012, Filipino fishermen have been unable to access the rich waters within its lagoon. But they have usually been able to get close enough to fish around the shoal’s fringing reef, at least until the CCG shows up, as pictured below.
A China Coast Guard vessel turns to pursue a Philippine fishing ship. November 18, 2015.
Duterte suggested upon his return from Beijing that he might have struck a deal to allow Filipino fishermen to return to fishing along the outskirts of the shoal, but not within its lagoon. This condition would ostensibly apply to Chinese fishermen as well, as a conservation measure to protect the coral and breeding grounds of fish within the lagoon.
But such an environmental concern is late in coming to China’s occupation of the shoal. Since Beijing took possession of Scarborough in 2012, Chinese poachers have devastated the local ecosystem, chopping up much of the reef in order to extract giant clams. The image below shows dozens of small Chinese boats likely involved in clam digging.
These clam-digging operations have destroyed roughly half of the reef surface around Scarborough Shoal, as evidenced by the wide semi-circular scars they leave behind in the before and after shots below.
Following his trip, Duterte said, “We’ll just wait for a few more days. We may be able to return to Scarborough Shoal,” suggesting that he had made progress in private discussions with Chinese officials. One Philippine member of Congress who accompanied Duterte on the visit to Beijing went further, saying, “my understanding is there is already a modus vivendi,” but the two sides remain at odds over the final language of the deal. Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said thatChina “might move out its coast guard vessels from that area” in the coming weeks. So far there have been no reports of Filipinos returning to the shoal, but the ability to extract some kind of deal from Beijing, and soon, will be a key test for Duterte’s new détente with China.
Of Claims and Freedoms: Diverging Perspectives on the South China Sea by Lucio Blanco Pitlo III
President Duterte Maintains Philippine-Japanese Partnership as He “Pivots” to China by Renato Cruz de Castro