MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Chinese coast guard ships have rescued two Filipino fishermen in bad weather at a disputed shoal and handed them back Friday to the Philippines in a show of how President Rodrigo Duterte has turned once-frosty relations with Beijing.
Philippine coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said Chinese coast guard officials notified them of the rescue in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines and later handed the two over to a Philippine vessel.
The Philippines sent a newly acquired patrol ship from Japan, the BRP Tubbataha, to receive the rescued Filipinos from the Chinese amid large waves in the high seas off Scarborough, Balilo said.
"This shows you that rescuing people at sea is beyond such conflicts," he said.
Following the friendly gesture, Balilo said the Chinese sent a message expressing hope that the Chinese and Philippine coast guards can "maintain the momentum of friendship and cooperation."
China seized the shoal in 2012 after a tense territorial standoff with Philippine government ships, and Chinese coast guard had blocked Filipinos from fishing there, prompting the Philippine government to bring the dispute to international arbitration.
An international tribunal in The Hague ruled in July that China has violated the rights of Filipino fishermen when it blocked them from the rich fishing area. The tribunal also invalidated China's sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beijing refused to take part in the proceedings, saying the tribunal has no jurisdiction in territorial disputes.
Duterte, who took office in June, has taken steps to repair relations with Beijing. After he met President Xi Jinping on a state visit to China in October, Filipinos were allowed back to fish near the shoal. The Philippine coast guard said it has also resumed patrols in the disputed waters.