Despite earlier reports, it appears that Filipino fishermen are still not fishing inside Scarborough Shoal. New imagery from October 29 showed a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel anchored just inside the mouth of the lagoon, where it has been for most of the period since China seized the shoal in 2012, apparently blocking access. At least 17 Philippine fishing vessels were present along the exterior of Scarborough’s reef. This corroborates reports that Filipino fishermen fished “just outside Scarborough’s lagoon” over the last week. There were also two Chinese civilian ships in the vicinity. According to the Philippine Navy, three other CCG vessels continue to patrol near Scarborough.
Markers may indicate more than one Philippine vessel operating close to each other.
This suggests that the “’friendly’ understanding” President Rodrigo Duterte negotiated during his trip to Beijing was only for Chinese authorities to relax the stricter blockade of the reef (documented below) that they put in place following the July 12 arbitral ruling. This would be a return to the status quo that has existed for much of the last four years, not the pre-2012 status quo in which Philippine fishermen regularly entered Scarborough Shoal. At many points over the last four years, Filipino fishermen have been able to approach the outside of the shoal, but always at the forbearance of the CCG (evidenced by the May 2016 and January 2015 images below). On October 31, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said, “The Chinese side has always been exercising normal jurisdiction over Huangyan Dao [Scarborough Shoal]. The situation there is and will remain unchanged.”
China Tightens Grip on Scarborough Shoal Post-Ruling
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s recent trip to Beijing yielded a number of agreements, including a vaguely-worded commitment to peacefully resolve the South China Sea disputes. But there was no public breakthrough on one closely-watched topic: the ability of Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal. An international tribunal ruled on July 12 that China’s closure of the shoal to Philippine fishing was illegal. But in the lead-up to Duterte’s visit, Filipino fishermen complained that it was becoming more, not less, difficult for them to approach Scarborough. Recent satellite imagery supports this conclusion.
In the wake of the July 12 arbitral ruling, the China Coast Guard (CCG) has continued to block Filipino access to Scarborough Shoal. In fact, the number of Chinese coast guard and civilian ships around the shoal has increased since at least early September, hitting levels not seen in satellite imagery since early 2014. On September 3, the Philippine Department of National Defense released photos of 10 Chinese ships—four CCG and six civilian—around the shoal. The number of Chinese ships remained elevated throughout much of September, according to satellite imagery, and there is no telling how many others might have been out of frame or under cloud cover.
The satellite imagery above is noteworthy because not a single Filipino fishing vessel was visible at the shoal on any of the days involved, lending credence to reports that CCG ships have driven off any ships approaching the shoal. Since China seized Scarborough in mid-2012, Filipino fishermen have been unable to access the rich waters within its lagoon. But they have usually been able to get close enough to fish around the shoal’s fringing reef, at least until the CCG shows up, as pictured below.
A China Coast Guard vessel turns to pursue a Philippine fishing ship. November 18, 2015.
Duterte suggested upon his return from Beijing that he might have struck a deal to allow Filipino fishermen to return to fishing along the outskirts of the shoal, but not within its lagoon. This condition would ostensibly apply to Chinese fishermen as well, as a conservation measure to protect the coral and breeding grounds of fish within the lagoon.
But such an environmental concern is late in coming to China’s occupation of the shoal. Since Beijing took possession of Scarborough in 2012, Chinese poachers have devastated the local ecosystem, chopping up much of the reef in order to extract giant clams. The image below shows dozens of small Chinese boats likely involved in clam digging.
These clam-digging operations have destroyed roughly half of the reef surface around Scarborough Shoal, as evidenced by the wide semi-circular scars they leave behind in the before and after shots below.
Following his trip, Duterte said, “We’ll just wait for a few more days. We may be able to return to Scarborough Shoal,” suggesting that he had made progress in private discussions with Chinese officials. One Philippine member of Congress who accompanied Duterte on the visit to Beijing went further, saying, “my understanding is there is already a modus vivendi,” but the two sides remain at odds over the final language of the deal. Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said that China “might move out its coast guard vessels from that area” in the coming weeks. So far there have been no reports of Filipinos returning to the shoal, but the ability to extract some kind of deal from Beijing, and soon, will be a key test for Duterte’s new détente with China.
See below for examples of China Coast Guard and Philippine fishing vessels.