BEIJING/MANILA (Reuters) – China said on Monday the situation at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea “has not changed and will not change”, after the Philippines said Chinese vessels that blocked the area for four years had stopped harassing its fishermen.
Philippine security officials on Sunday said China had scaled down its maritime presence at the shoal since President Rodrigo Duterte’s return from a visit to Beijing aimed at patching-up ties and courting investment.
The disputed territory is significant not only for fishing, but for the broader balance of power in the South China Sea, and the circumstances behind China’s apparent softening of its position are not clear.
Asked about Philippine fishermen entering the area unimpeded, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said China always had “normal administration” over the Scarborough Shoal.
“The relevant situation has not changed and will not change,” she told a regular briefing.
Hua said Duterte’s visit to Beijing marked an overall improvement in relations.
“China will make proper arrangements on issues of President Duterte’s interest,” Hua said, without giving details.
China had repelled fishermen since seizing the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
Philippine boats returned from the area at the weekend with tonnes of fish and said Chinese boats had left them alone.
China’s blockade of what is a prime fishing spot prompted the previous Philippine government to file a legal case in 2013 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, infuriating Beijing.
The tribunal’s July ruling in favor of the Philippines, which China refuses to acknowledge, declared no one country had sovereign rights over the shoal, and as a traditional fishing ground, Chinese, Philippine and Vietnamese were entitled to access it.
A frosty Philippine-China relationship changed dramatically after Duterte took office four months ago and started praising China while denouncing old ally the United States in a reversal of his predecessor’s foreign policy.
Duterte’s national security adviser, Hermogenes Esperon, confirmed there had been no agreement between the two countries about the Scarborough Shoal.
He said the dispute had not been resolved and the Philippines would reassert its rights when bilateral talks resume, although he noted “the climate has changed”.
“The president reiterated that we won in the court, the other leader also reiterated that it is historically their territory, so it was not resolved,” Esperon told reporters, referring to Duterte’s talks with Chinese leaders.
“They have coastguard ships there, there are no more navy ships and our fishermen are no longer accosted, they are not driven away.”
“In short, they are more friendly now.”
(Reporting by Paul Carsten in BEIJING and Manuel Mogato in MANILA; Editing by Robert Birsel)