China considers granting Philippines access to disputed shoal

China is considering a « wholesale » deal that will grant Philippine fishing vessels access to disputed Scarborough Shoal waters in the South China Sea, an influential Chinese academic and government adviser said on Friday, as relations between the two countries improve.

China has been thinking of means to grant Philippine fishing vessels access to the island’s waters since President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing in October, said Wu Shicun, head of government-run National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

« A wholesale bilateral fishing industry deal is still being discussed, an agreement has not yet been reached, » Wu said at a forum in Beijing.

China’s bitter squabble with the Philippines over the waters has subsided since Duterte’s visit, which came shortly after a Netherlands-based arbitration court ruled in favor of the Philippines, undermining China’s territorial claims.

Since 2012, China had used its coastguard to block the waters around the shoal from Filipinos, but Chinese vessels reportedly left the region after Duterte’s visit, allowing fishermen to return.

Last week, Duterte made a unilateral declaration barring fishermen from exploiting marine life at a tranquil lagoon that was central to years of bitter squabbling, a sharp reversal in the Philippines’ previous policy.

At this time, the waters within the shoal are not accessible to either Chinese or Filipino fishermen, Wu said. Fishermen would be granted access to the shoal for humanitarian reasons if a typhoon hit the waters, he added.

Wu has been involved in diplomatic efforts to bring China and the Philippines closer together since Duterte’s election.

Zhu Feng, director of the South China Sea Center at Nanjing University, said there had been a « fundamental change » since Duterte came into office.

The « Scarborough Shoal push », if successful, would give hope that the disputes within the South China Sea may be diplomatically resolved, he added, speaking at the same forum.

China has sought to underscore its sovereignty over the shoal, and in public has been less specific about how arrangements allowing Philippine fishermen to operate there will work.

Asked about Wu’s comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China would make « appropriate arrangements » to allow Filipino fishermen access to the waters, but did not give any further details.

China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea. As well as the Philippines, neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.