Former President Fidel V. Ramos said Saturday he discussed with Chinese representatives the possibility of restoring “traditional fishing rights” in the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) and described the overall tone of the backdoor negotiations as “encouraging.”
“We talked about fishing, for us to restore the status quo ante… before the conflict,” Ramos told a news briefing a day after his team returned home from meeting with their counterparts led by former Ambassadors Fu Ying, chair of the foreign committee of the National People’s Congress, and Wu Shicun, who heads the National Institute for South China Studies.
The idea, Ramos said, was that “we restore the fishing rights according to the rights accorded by tradition,” which means that fishermen from the two countries, as well as from Vietnam, would be allowed in the shoal.
President Duterte had dispatched Ramos to China following a UN-backed arbitration court’s ruling last month that invalidated China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, including waters the Philippines considers as part of its exclusive economic zone.
The ruling has been angrily rejected by China, which has called on the Philippines to also disregard the ruling. Manila has disregarded that suggestion.
Ramos was joined by his senior advisers, former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan and Chito Sta. Romana.
Alunan said the “status quo ante” means both sides agreed to go back to the way things were prior to the eruption of the conflict over Scarborough Shoal in 2012, when the Philippines apprehended Chinese vessels in the area and seized endangered marine species.
Tensions quickly escalated, resulting in a standoff, and eventually in Manila seeking international arbitration.
“Both sides were [previously] fishing there. So we will have to allow each other [in] again,” Alunan said.
Alunan said the tribunal’s ruling was “a bit ambiguous” when it came to Scarborough, despite the shoal clearly being well within Manila’s exclusive zone. He said the Chinese commented that the best way to move forward was to allow each other to share the resources there.
“So, we said, OK, why don’t we just allow each other to fish there? But not inside the shoal but around it, to protect the environment,” Alunan said, adding that the Chinese side “noted” the suggestion.
“Don’t forget, we were not there to agree. We were just there to talk,” he said.
He said no official commitments were made, but rather, we were “just noting each other’s comments and aspirations. and these are points that we’ll be discussing in the future.”
“We’re still not talking of bilateral talks,” Alunan said, describing themselves as “special envoys” involved in backchannel talks. “We’re just paving the way. So we’re looking for common ground for cooperation and for peace. and then, that will lead to confidence-building measures. Then, if we find enough room for confidence and trust, then that will most likely lead to bilateral talks.” With an AFP report/TVJ