MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Sunday that Filipino fishermen "may" be able to return to the Chinese-held Scarborough Shoal in a few days after he discussed the territorial rift with Chinese leaders, but he did not say whether China imposed conditions.
Duterte said that in talks in Beijing this past week, he insisted that the shoal off his country's northwestern coast — which China effectively took control of in 2012 following a standoff with the Philippines — belonged to his country, but added that the Chinese also asserted their claim of ownership.
If Filipinos are allowed to sail back to Scarborough, a traditional fishing ground and storm shelter, Duterte said they would be prohibited from fishing inside a sprawling lagoon that is a fish spawning ground that should be protected.
"We'll just wait for a few more days. We may be able to return to Scarborough Shoal, the fishing by our countrymen," Duterte said in a speech in the northern city of Tuguegarao, making a visit after the region was lashed by a super typhoon.
Considering the delicate role of Scarborough's shallow lagoon, which is a spawning area for tuna and other fish, "I myself said that if we're able to sail back to Scarborough Shoal as its owner — and they insist they are also the owner — I myself will say, 'Don't fish there,'" Duterte said.
"What I know is he has also asked the Chinese fishermen to go away so there won't be anybody who'll be seen there," he said without identifying the Chinese leader he talked with. "That's what we discussed. I'm not sure if they'll fulfill that."
In another speech Sunday in the typhoon-hit province of Isabela, Duterte said a Chinese official insisted on China's ownership of virtually the entire contested sea on historical grounds, citing the official as saying, "We will not give in on this."
Duterte said he replied that the Philippines won't budge "because we won in the court.'" In a landmark ruling in July, an international tribunal in The Hague invalidated China's historic claims in the South China Sea and ruled that the Chinese government violated the Filipinos' right to fish in Scarborough, which it declared a traditional fishing ground.
Duterte cited the Chinese as saying, "We can resolve this case peacefully, no fighting, no blood and it will take time." Duterte said he responded by saying, "It's OK ... we'll discuss the award that we got someday and we won't get out of this document ... we won in the ownership."
"But I will not insist now, I will not impose now, I will not go to war now, I will not waste the life of my soldiers," Duterte said. "Our two FA-50s have no rockets, how will I wage a war? In five minutes, their planes will reach Manila while ours, on takeoff, will just get stuck there and won't be able to fly because they'll be bombed."
During his visit to China, Duterte met Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top officials.
China effectively took control of Scarborough in 2012 after its ships had a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. Then-President Benigno Aquino III said U.S. officials brokered a deal for a simultaneous withdrawal of the ships. Aquino withdrew his government's ships, but said China reneged on the verbal deal and went on to control Scarborough.
Since then, Chinese coast guard ships have guarded the shoal, blocking and driving away Filipino fishermen, who complained that the Chinese at times used water cannons or dangerously chased them away while yelling, through a bullhorn, that they were barging into Chinese territory.
In 2013, Aquino's administration brought its territorial disputes with China to international arbitration, a move that China ignored.
China ignored the ruling by the tribunal and continued shooing Filipinos away from the shoal.
The tough-talking Duterte, who has reached out to China while stepping back from his country's close security alliance with the U.S., has said he would not immediately insist on China's compliance to the arbitration ruling. Instead, he said he would mend strained relations with Beijing and seek to expand two-way trade and investments with the Asian economic powerhouse.
China committed to provide up to $16 million in financial assistance, which could come next year, primarily for agriculture, aside from business deals with Philippine companies, Duterte said, praising China for "really being nice inside."